5:25:13 Southern Cross the Dog: a book review

The first question asked of Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng is how does one Gotham Chinese-American write convincingly about a young African-American living in the rural South if the novelist has never set foot below the Mason-Dixon line?

Defying any idea fiction writers write about what they know, Mr. Cheng has a debut novel being hyped as like Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy, and the towering genius of William Faulkner himself.

By his own admission, Brooklynite Mr. Cheng has, however, obsessively inhaled the Southern milieu with a devotion to that art form known as the blues. Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters and others: They've taken Cheng into the South. Indeed, Cheng says the makings of his story came straight from lyrics of the blues; a great Mississippi Delta flood--so essential to the Southern experience--is but one pivotal example.

[book cover]

Southern Cross the Dog begins like this:

"When I was a baby child, they put the jinx on me.

"It was in my drink and food and milk. And when I ran, it heavied in my bones and when I sang, it stopped up my throat and when I loved, it let from me, hot and poisonous."

This voice of young Robert Lee Chatham, the narration that follows, the prose lines of Southern Cross the Dog are astonishingly fresh and original. Cheng has taken what he learned from studying the blues and applied it to his fiction prose. Bill Cheng doesn't hesitate to bend his words like so many blue notes.

The novel hinges on one event: the Flood of 1927. Everybody who shows up in the novel has an after-the-Flood life of unrelenting loss, and they struggle.

In years that follow, the Feds in DC authorize flood control and hydroelectric projects: dams and levees that must alter the landscape for a new South. Some of Cheng's most compassionate and poignant chapters are set among Cajun fur trappers, who lose their livelihood in the name of this progress.

Besides young Robert and fur trappers, other memorable characters populate the episodic fourteen years of Southern Cross the Dog. A blues-playing pianist, released from prison after serving time for a murder he didn't commit. A bordello madam, who employs teenage Robert, after his family abandons him. Childhood friends. bruised by life, Robert rediscovers as adults.

If I had one reservation, I would say I couldn't distinguish between the expressive voice of young protagonist Robert Lee Chatham and the authorial voice when Robert is offstage. They're the same: Cheng's. (An unFaulknerlike fault.) But putting that aside, Southern Cross the Dog is an exceptional debut novel.

Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng, 2013, HarperCollins, ISBN: 978-0-06-222500-9, eISBN: 978-0-06-2225030.

Read more ...
(click to enlarge image)

The Cat at Light's End

Read Charlie Dickinson's story collection, The Cat at Light's End, as an ebook in these downloadable formats:

.mobi (Kindle)
.epub (most other readers)
.pdf (for PCs)

more posts

7:25:13 Le Havre by Kaurismaki
7:20:13 This Ain't California
6:27:13 The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking, a book review
5.29.13 My Linux (Mis)Adventures
5.25.13 Southern Cross the Dog, a book review
5.5.13 Russian Tumbleweed
4:16:13 "The Machine Stops" by E. M. Forster
3.26.13 Camera-rama
3.25.13 Moore's Law
3:13:13 Grocery Shopping 
2:28:13 Razor Blade in Moonlight
1:27:13 Made in Russia: Unsung Icons of Soviet Design, a book review
1:6:13 Alleys
12:9:12 White Bread, a book review
12:4:12 Update on Old-School Shaving
11:12:12 Ten Great Buys at Dollar Tree
11:6:12 My New Russian Camera
10:29:12 Leaf Day
10:2:12 The Russian Navy in New York?
9:21:12 The Righteous Mind, a book review
9:14:12 Revolution, 1989, a book review
8:23:12 Train Whistles in the Night
8:2:12 Why I've Stockpiled Light Bulbs
7:22:12 Old-School Shaving
7:16:12 Злектроника МК-52, computer de minimus
7:4:12 Ivan's Childhood by Tarkovsky
6:21:12 The Unabomber, a modern Thoreau?
6:12:12 Do the gods exist?
6:7:12 My "Retail Therapy"
5:28:12 On Taxes, We Should Go Green
5:17:12 Portland's Trash
5:6:12 The Toaster Project, a book review
4:24:12 No Seconds
4:12:12 Portland's Runaway Utility Bill
4:8:12 The Repossession, a book review
3:30:12 How I Got Published in Mississippi Review
3:18:12 Rothko
3:9:12 The End of Money, a book review
3:1:12 gutenberg.org
2:18:12 Beauty Plus Pity, a book review
2:5:12 Kirk's Castile Soap
1:29:12 Confessions of a Fallen Standard-Bearer, a book review
1:22:12 Thirst, a book review
1:17:12 My IBM ThinkPad 1999-2012
1:11:12 String Beans
12:22:11 Spiritual TMJ
12:16:11 1Q84, a book review
12:11:11 How Portland Became Portlandia
12:1:11 The Fixie
11:20:11 Camus' Insight
11:13:11 Old & Worthy
11:7:11 Life Is Tragic
10:31:11 A Matter of Death and Life, a book review
10:25:11 Dead Letter, Email Fatigue
10:18:11 Reinventing Collapse, a book review
10:11:11 Rereading Pirsig
10:1:11 The Sisters Brothers, a book review
9:26:11 The Great Stagnation, a book review
9:16:11 Coffee, The Affordable Luxury
9:12:11 The Genius of Value
9:5:11 Death and the Penguin, a book review