by Bill Cheng; Ecco, 2013; 324 pages; $$25.99
“If you didn’t know anything about African people and nothing about black people in America, and someone gave you blues records, you could listen and find out what kind of people these were … their symmetry, this grace … you’d be able to construct their daily lives.”
That’s what playwright August Wilson once said about the blues. That’s because he never read “Southern Cross the Dog,” Bill Cheng’s riveting, disquieting account of a young man’s odyssey through the unrest of the American South during the second quarter of the last century.
Cheng’s debut novel is about finding “home” despite “the past that keeps happening to us.” It is told in shifting time frames and shifting narratives between the cataclysmic Great Flood of 1927 in Mississippi and the emergence of a “Shining New South” in 1941.
It is about Robert Lee Chatham, whose family is displaced by the Great Flood. In fact, that flood is the climax to a family existence that has been overshadowed by the lynching of Robert’s 16-year-old brother Billy. But there’s also been time for a friendship with G.D. and a single kiss from Dora before the flood displaces that life and Robert finds himself in a refugee camp fighting to survive.
Robert’s journey soon takes him to the Hotel Beau-Miel, where he cleans the brothel and strikes up a relationship with Eli Cutter, blues pianist and conjurer, who convinces him to protect himself from the devil in this life.
Robert carries this advice with him through a stint on a swamp “dig crew” and a turn with a family of fur trappers, before finally coming to rest in a small town in the company of his past.
Yet there is scant reward at the end of his odyssey, only something called the blues: “Little by little, he felt himself slipping, sinking beneath his own body, through the mattress, the floor, into the cold earth, and deeper still in the yawning dark, to that place of loss and losing.”
One of the South’s greatest writers also sang those blues. “This is the one thing I’ve learned,” states Eli Cutter, that profligate blues pianist, late in the novel. “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 we get away, it keeps happening to us.”
It may sound like William Faulkner, but it isn’t. It’s Bill Cheng, Faulkner’s heir. And “Southern Cross the Dog” is “As I Lay Dying” for our new South.
Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.