Born Under a Bad Sign: Review of Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng
Robert Lee Chatham, the main character in Bill Cheng’s blues-infused debut novel Southern Cross the Dog, believes he was cursed by the Devil as a baby, or in the vernacular of the blues, “born under a bad sign.” The opening line is, “When I was a baby they put a jinx on me.”
In all matter of ways, Chatham’s life as a black child/man is down, dirty, and star-crossed. He’s witnessed the lynching of his brother, suffered through the Katrina-like deluge in the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and finds himself surrounded by working women while growing up in a brothel. Later, he’s kidnapped by the L’Etang family who are white fur traders living deep in the swampy backwaters. Eventually, he bonds with the white wife of one of the trappers, but by then he is a haunted and broken man. In the end, a woman from his past beckons, and he must choose between the promise of a brighter future or what he believes to be his destiny.
The backdrop for this lush novel is Mississippi during the first half of the twentieth century while it’s deep into Jim Crow savagery. The darkness and grit of life during this time period rings eerily true under Cheng’s hand: The fear that lives inside each soul like a black dog they cannot escape; The heavy humidity that is a constant slick upon the faces of the unfortunates; The incessant buzz of mosquitos; The patois of the Creole trappers; And, the crack of the bossman’s whip.
Southern Cross the Dog shines especially bright in the details. The Chinese-American Cheng, who unbelievably had never been to Mississippi, camped out in a library to learn everything he could about the deep south, from dialects, to flora and fauna, to medicinal herbs, and even how to walk through a swamp:
“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 legs 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. The first time, I near sunk clean through. The ground was too soft, and the mud rose up into my boots. It drew in my feet, my ankles, up above the knee. I had to dig my way out with my hands, pressing into the cold yolky soil, pulling it back in clumps. You learn to read the mud. Where the gators drag-belly downslope. The little trough of raised slime. You learn the stink. Where the swamp wants to fold you into yourself.”
Interspersed throughout the story are bluesy adages, maxims, and hard-earned truths. This one could easily sum up the story:
“This is one thing I’ve learned. The one truth God has ever given to a man. And it’s that the past keeps happening to us. No matter who we are or how far we get away, it keeps happening to us.”
Southern Cross the Dog is built on a loose narrative of interconnected stories. It’s bones are akin to the blues music Cheng acknowledges was his inspiration. The power rises from the rhythmic repetition of the verses that paint the harsh reality of the Jim Crow South: oppression, fear, lost love, prison, pain, melancholy, and superstition–all major elements of blues music. In a NYT review by Julie Bosman I read that Cheng “decided the story should take place in Mississippi because it was the birthplace of the blues, but didn’t set out to write an explicitly blues novel.” He said,” I just looked for the things that show up a lot in the music, images and icons that are prominent in music — the flood, the Devil, the hellhouse…The story formed itself around that.”
The magnificent Southern Cross the Dog is Cheng’s first novel and he’s fresh out of Hunter College’s MFA program. How did he do it? Perhaps he sold his soul to the Devil as bluesman Robert Johnson did at the crossroads. I discovered the title refers to the crossroads of two railways in Moorhead, Mississippi. They are the Southern Railroad that ran north and south, and the Yazoo Delta, more popularly known as the Yellow Dog, that crossed it. (Read more here.)
Last week, Southern Cross the Dog made the Long List for the 2013 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. I think there will be other accolades to come. So while Cheng may love the blues, he won’t have a reason to sing the blues anytime soon.