In the tradition of Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O'Connor, Bill Cheng's Southern Cross the Dog is an epic literary debut in which the bonds between three childhood friends are upended by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. In its aftermath, one young man must choose between the lure of the future and the claims of the past.Read more...
In the tradition of Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O'Connor, Bill Cheng's Southern Cross the Dog is an epic literary debut in which the bonds between three childhood friends are upended by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. In its aftermath, one young man must choose between the lure of the future and the claims of the past.
Having lost virtually everything in the fearsome storm--home, family, first love--Robert Chatham embarks on an odyssey that takes him through the deep South, from the desperation of a refugee camp to the fiery and raucous brothel Hotel Beau-Miel and into the Mississippi hinterland, where he joins a crew hired to clear the swamp and build a dam.
Along his journey he encounters piano-playing hustlers, ne'er-do-well Klansmen, well-intentioned whores, and a family of fur trappers, the L'Etangs, whose very existence is threatened by the swamp-clearing around them. The L'Etang brothers are fierce and wild but there is something soft about their cousin Frankie, possibly the only woman capable of penetrating Robert's darkest places and overturning his conviction that he's marked by the devil.
Teeming with language that renders both the savage beauty and complex humanity of our shared past, Southern Cross the Dog is a tour de force that heralds the arrival of a major new voice in fiction.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-03-18
- Reviewer: Staff
Charged with a swampy sense of foreboding, Cheng’s debut novel is set in the early 20th century, in a mythic South populated by leather-clad backwoodsmen, a kind madam, and a barrelhouse piano player with a “mojo bag.” Robert Lee Chatham, survivor of a massive flood, grows up working in a brothel. A fall off a roof brings him into contact with bluesman Eli Cutter, who warns, “Bad and trouble is set to follow you through this earth.” As an adult, Robert works on a swamp “dig crew” until the day he impulsively jumps into a river and is swept away. He’s rescued by a family of feral swamp trappers, only to be abused until he nearly dies. Eventually he’s able to slit the throat of one of his captors and flee, ending up in a small town where he reunites with childhood friends Dora and G.D. The three form a happy family of sorts, yet Robert still feels himself slipping into “that place of lost and losing.” With its evocative settings and rich McCarthyesque language, this Southern gothic packs a punch like a mean drunk. Agent: Nicole Aragi, Aragi Inc. (May)
Along the mighty Mississippi
In 1927, the Mississippi River broke free of its banks and flooded parts of its namesake state. The flood scattered the river’s neighbors across the Mississippi Delta region, changing the course of their lives but not separating them for good.
Robert Chatham is a child of 8 when the river destroys his home and his family. Five years after the flood, he’s working as an errand boy at the brothel Beau-Miel in Bruce, 100 miles from Issaquena County, unsure of whether his parents survived. As author Bill Cheng writes, Robert is “thirteen years old and already broken.”
Robert comes to realize he’s “bad crossed,” and trouble follows him wherever he goes. Along the way, one of the characters he meets gives Robert a “devil,” a pinch of rock salt, ash and an Indian-head penny to keep in a pouch around his neck. These will keep trouble away, the man says. But if Robert isn’t exactly trouble-free, well, he’s still alive—a fact that seems miraculous at times, as he traipses through the Mississippi Delta and faces a variety of dangers, including a wild river, angry trappers and a burning building. “He could not count the times he’d come so close to death only to be thrown violently again into life,” Cheng writes. Along the way, Robert stumbles upon people from his past, welcome faces and those not so welcome, and tries to evade the trouble that he can’t seem to lose in search of a happier life.
Chinese-American writer Cheng was raised in New York City and, at the time of writing this book, had yet to set foot in the state of Mississippi. Even so, his lyrical storytelling is reminiscent of tales shared on a front porch. The stories dance through time in this nonlinear, epic adventure tale, skipping between 1927, 1932 and 1941. The rambling story covers an awful lot of territory, emotionally and physically—just like life itself.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE
Read a Q&A with Bill Cheng for Southern Cross the Dog.