How does a Chinese American who has never set foot in Mississippi write an entire novel featuring black characters set in the Deep South during the early 20th century? Writer Bill Cheng wields a certain brand of gothic magic to accomplish this unusual feat in his debut novel Southern Cross the Dog. “You have to write toward your interests,” says Cheng in an interview with Book Page, an unexpected turn for an author raised in Queens and currently living in Brooklyn, New York. In Southern Cross the Dog, Cheng spins an epic novel spanning 14 years in the Southern gothic tradition. Unfolding as a series of episodic subplots, Cheng’s novel chronicles an odyssey of longing, discovery, and perseverance populated with intriguing characters and events.
The novel launches in Mississippi with a sudden rainstorm as eight-year-old Robert Lee Chatham, a young African American, struggles to escape its onslaught along with his friends. Not only does this turbulent storm of biblical proportions destroy his home, but it strikes in the midst of his first kiss with his childhood crush Dora, who is later captured by a ruthless man bent on pillaging abandoned homes. The star-crossed lovers are too soon displaced and separated by the Mississippi flood of 1927.
From the wake of this storm begins Robert’s journey as he leaves his family and travels as an itinerant laborer across the wild landscape of the Deep South—working initially as an errand boy at an ill-fated brothel, later as a dynamiter in the rural swamps of Mississippi, and eventually clearing the land to build a dam for the envisioned “Shining New South.” Along the way, he encounters a diverse cast of characters including Eli Cutter, a smooth-talking pianist and voodoo shaman, Miss Lucy, owner of a brothel disguised as the Beau-Miel Hotel, as well as a pack of Cajun feral trappers, prostitutes, and free-wheeling grifters. At one point, he even discovers another love interest that could very well steal his heart away from Dora.
From the outset, a steady atmospheric mood and tone underlie Cheng’s prose as depicted in his opening scene when Robert and his longtime childhood friend G.D. brave the elements of an impending storm:
The rain kept on like a dust and it was the oldest boy G.D. who said it wasn’t nothing, crossing through the woods behind Old Man Crookhand’s. The wind swooped through, chattering the branches, and blew the grit against their faces . . . There’d been stories about dead Injuns and their ghosts living inside the hollows. The wind came through and the naked branches clattered. The gang looked at one another, then up at G.D. He spit a wad down into the grove.
Nature and folklore play subtle yet pervasive roles throughout the novel, injecting it with an aura of eeriness steeped in legend and superstition. These elements dance in tandem on the fringes of the plot, forming a spooky resonance in an oral-like tradition.
Photo of the author by Joe Orecchio
Perhaps the most striking of Cheng’s style lies in his finely articulated prose as illustrated in this following passage delineating the delicate nuances of horseback riding:
You learn where to stand and how. Ten paces from this bush, an arm’s length from that tree. You learn how to walk—swinging your leg’s saddle wide, then easing your weight across a width of earth. It goes up the calves, the fat of the leg, then across. All your weight is in your belly. Then the other leg. The ball of your foot. Back into the earth.
Engineering a syncopated rhythm and cadence, Cheng weaves his words and sentences with meticulous care. Precision and pacing balance his prose much like the harmony of a well-orchestrated symphony.
Although Cheng’s writing exudes gothic flair and elegance on a micro-level, much remains to be desired in the grander unity and scope of the book’s central plot and shaping of its shady characters. Variant scenes, characters, and points of view shift around periodically, forcing readers to piece together episodic scenarios, resulting in a fragmented storyline with sporadic instances of dramatic tension and incremental plot formations. The narrative pace fluctuates in a criss-crossing chronology, gradually advancing through a series of events depicting the trials of the Deep South.
Overall, Cheng succeeds in crafting a novel interspersed with tall tales and the blues encapsulated by the Southern gothic tradition. Characters glide in and out like phantoms, and the plot rambles on across the wild southern landscape—a journey that culminates with Robert Chatham making a fateful decision that will transform his relationship with Dora and his closest friends. For a debut novel, Cheng has achieved an outstanding feat in imagining a historical fiction narrative from the perspective of a community of which he is not a member, capturing it in a startlingly persuasive voice.
As an Asian American writer, he demonstrates that significant experiences need not always be centered on or defined through one’s ethnic and cultural identity. According to an interview with Book Page, Cheng based his novel in Mississippi—the birthplace of the blues—to capture the “frustration, the melancholy, the resignation but also this great joy [of the blues]” for which he developed a nostalgic affinity. Both haunting and alluring in its execution, Southern Cross the Dog infuses fresh vitality and introduces a compelling voice to the canon of American literature reminiscent of William Faulkner, Zora Neale Hurston, and Flannery O’Connor.
Jerry Dear, Information Strategist at the San Francisco Public Library, spends his time exploring the intricate world of online research and also teaches at City College of San Francisco. In his free time, he indulges in graphic novels, anime, and Asian American film and literature.