Set in the early 20th century American South, Southern Cross the Dog follows the life of Robert Chatham, a young African American boy whose family is crippled by the Great Flood of 1927. Scarred with the memory of his brother’s lynching and his mother’s subsequent descent into madness, Chatham is thrown into a world of violence and bigotry. He grows up earning a living as a wash boy in a whorehouse, and it is there he encounters the uncanny Eli Cutter: a prodigious blues player who tells him his life is marked by the Devil.
Fast-forward and we see Chatham as a dynamiter attempting to drain a swamp. A pathetic suicide attempt later, he is taken half-prisoner by a clan of French fur trappers, and is almost tortured to death until he slits his captor’s throat and escapes. In a shoddy town nearby, Chatham is unexpectedly reunited with his childhood friends, but ultimately fails to elude the feeling of loss that permanently resides within him.
As theatrical as the plot sounds, Southern Cross the Dog is a novel that is surprisingly refreshing for a story revolving around fear, racism and heartbreak. Perhaps it is the fact that Bill Cheng is, in fact, an Asian American New Yorker attempting to step into the shoes of a black man living in the turbulent old South. And perhaps it is this very change of perspective that gives Southern Cross the Dog its unique vibe.
Race aside, for a man who has never set foot in the Mississippi Delta, Cheng is exceptionally good at capturing the organic twang of Southern dialogue. Each character’s utterance proves unpretentiously homely yet exotically authentic. Cheng’s elegiac language further creates a profound aura of melancholy and poignancy from page one.
“When I was a baby child, they put the jinx on me. It was in my food and milk. And when I ran, it heavied in my bones and when I sang, it stopped in my throat and when I loved, it let from me, hot and poisonous.”
Under Cheng’s bold pen, ingenious expressions like “clouds doughed over”; “deep veins of light”; and, “ a long curtain of sky unraveling at its fringe” seem to brim at the pages, forming imagery too picturesque.
If there’s anything that marks Southern Cross the Dog as unusual, it’s that it retains a kind of silent tension that brims but never quite overflows. Cheng instills in his writing just enough pathos to evoke honest emotion, but refrains from the tear-jerking sentimentalization that often makes novels of the same genre painful to endure. In essence, Southern Cross the Dog is much like a quiet action movie. If you are looking for a light read this summer that will leave a lasting impression, give Bill Cheng’s debut novel a shot — you will not be disappointed.