Bill Cheng’s first novel, “Southern Cross the Dog,” is dedicated to a long list of his favorite bluesmen, from Son House and Pinetop Perkins to Muddy Waters and Blind Willie McTell.
This is not a good omen. The blues in American fiction is a strong spice, easily overused. It’s worrisome too that “Southern Cross the Dog” is set in Jim Crow-era Mississippi and is mostly about the lives of black men and women. Cheng is a 29-year-old Chinese-American from New York. Until this month he’d never set foot in Mississippi.
This is not the audacity of hope. This is the hope of audacity. But as Tennessee Williams is reported to have said, “What is talent but the ability to get away with something?”
Cheng’s novel follows a boy, Robert Lee Chatham, whose family’s house is destroyed in the great Mississippi flood of 1927. Robert’s father, unable to care for him, leaves him to grow up in a brothel called the Hotel Beau-Miel. Hard luck follows him.
There are other primary characters in “Southern Cross the Dog,” notably Eli Cutter, a blues pianist who has been in prison for manslaughter. If he hasn’t yet made a deal with the devil, the two have opened lively negotiations. Eli is “a scarecrow of a man in a secondhand suit,” a “beast among lambs.” Whenever he appears, this novel’s gothic atmosphere clicks on like a ceiling fan: “When you shook his hand, you could feel a bad wind move through you. Chill you to the core.”
Robert’s and Eli’s paths move together and apart, through beatings, lynchings, arson, floods, narrow escapes, love affairs, robberies, rowdy couplings, greasy meals, hunting scenes, great friendships. It all goes down smoothly, mostly too smoothly.
Cheng is a fluid and forceful writer. The flood scenes, in particular, are fine. You feel he’s conjuring not just the flood of 1927 but also the lingering ghosts of Katrina. (The book’s title refers to a pair of rivers.)
”Homes bled out their insides – bureaus, bathtubs, drawers, gramophones – before folding into themselves,” he writes. “The people scrambled up onto their roofs, up trees, clinging to one another. The water blew them from their porches, swept them into the drift, smashed them against the debris. They bubbled up swollen and drowned, rag-dolled in the current, moving deeper and deeper inland, toward Issaquena.”
There is a strong, bitter section here too about white trappers who are about to lose their livelihoods, thanks to the amiable nightmare that to them is the Tennessee Valley Authority. The phrase “a shining new South” is employed to excellent sarcastic effect.
As you turn the pages of “Southern Cross the Dog,” however, it begins to occur to you that Cheng might have dedicated his novel not to bluesmen but to Southern gothic writers like William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy.
There is almost a classical rigor to the way his sentences seek to capture the cadences and diction of these writers. “Southern Cross the Dog” often verges on stream of consciousness; it is filled with disturbing and disorienting characters and grotesque situations; the point of view frequently shifts.
A sense of ventriloquism creeps in. A copycat, as the critic James Wolcott has maintained, in a different context, is always “an energy level removed from the cat he’s copying.”
Cheng’s mastery of this backward-looking voice is handicapped by an overwrought quality. He goes to the well too many times.
You can’t turn more than a few pages in “Southern Cross the Dog” without finding homilies that were, long ago, scratched into the backs of chairs by others with kitchen knives: “The past keeps happening to us.” “How strange family is.” “All that is borrowed must one day be repaid.” “There was a devil in everything.” A little of this goes a long way.
Cheng creates memorable characters, and he can cast a spell. He’s young, and he’s got chops. I just wish I could say about this novel what one character says about the meal of roasted rabbits she is about to tuck into: “T’night, grease’n we on meat.”