Southern Cross the Dog

( 8 )


An epic odyssey in which a young man must choose between the lure of the future and the claims of the past

With clouds looming on the horizon, a group of children play among the roots of the gnarled Bone Tree. Their games will be interrupted by a merciless storm?bringing with it the Great Flood of 1927?but not before Robert Chatham shares his first kiss with the beautiful young Dora. The flood destroys their homes, disperses their families, and wrecks their innocence. But that ...

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Southern Cross the Dog

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An epic odyssey in which a young man must choose between the lure of the future and the claims of the past

With clouds looming on the horizon, a group of children play among the roots of the gnarled Bone Tree. Their games will be interrupted by a merciless storm–bringing with it the Great Flood of 1927–but not before Robert Chatham shares his first kiss with the beautiful young Dora. The flood destroys their homes, disperses their families, and wrecks their innocence. But that kiss will sustain Robert for years to come. Having lost virtually everything in the storm's aftermath, Robert embarks on a journey through the Mississippi hinterland–from a refugee camp to a brothel to the state's fearsome swamp. Trouble follows close on his heels, fueling Robert's conviction that he's marked by the devil. Yet just when he seems to shake off his demons, he's forced to make a choice that will test him as never before.

Teeming with language that Entertainment Weekly hailed as "sun-scorched prose [that] recalls William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Cormac McCarthy," Southern Cross the Dog is a tour de force of literary imagination that voices both the savage beauty and complex humanity of the American South.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 actually began in 1926, but its devastation extended deep into the following year. The great river deluge in American history covered more than 27,000 square miles of land and its human toll was incalculable. Southern Cross the Dog takes readers inside the tumultuous event and its aftermath, revealing how one man and his two childhood friends respond as their lives are changed by the rising waters. (P.S. The Southern and the Dog are two railroads. As a young man, blues pioneer W.C. Handy heard a song about "going where the Southern cross the Dog." Thus, this novel's title.)

The Washington Post - Carolyn See
…[a] powerful debut…
The New York Times Book Review - Ayana Mathis
…Cheng's characters are finely spun, soulful creatures, and his writing is muscular, evocative and haunting…In passages about the hostile and spooky natural world, or the equally mysterious depths of his characters, Cheng's talent astonishes, and the blues music that so clearly inspired him echoes through the prose.
Publishers Weekly
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)
Nathan Englander
“Fantastic and beautifully written, Southern Cross the Dog is an epic and bluesy throwdown in the Southern tradition.”
Edward J. Jones
“Lush and so very often poetic. . . . Southern Cross the Dog has large and small echoes of masterful works, but we should not make any mistake—Cheng has carved out his own creative and accomplished path.”
Booklist (starring review)
“[A] brooding, spine-chilling southern odyssey. . . . Bold and piercing. . . . [Cheng’s] darkly rhapsodic language is so imaginative and highly charged that each word seems newly forged.”
Colum McCann
“An incredibly daring and powerful debut. Not only does Bill Cheng set the language on fire in Southern Cross the Dog, but he creates a whole new territory of story-telling. . . . Cheng, almost literally, writes out of his skin.”
Ravi Howard
“A vibrant world grows from the pages of Southern Cross the Dog and its dynamic mix of language and place. Bill Cheng conjures history with precision and style in his exceptional debut.”
Wall Street Journal
“Scintillating. . . . Unforgettable.”
Booklist (starred review)
“[A] brooding, spine-chilling southern odyssey. . . . Bold and piercing. . . . [Cheng’s] darkly rhapsodic language is so imaginative and highly charged that each word seems newly forged.”
Edward P. Jones
“Lush and so very often poetic. . . . Southern Cross the Dog has large and small echoes of masterful works, but we should not make any mistake—Cheng has carved out his own creative and accomplished path.”
Boston Globe
“A rich, rollicking debut. . . a phantasmagorical excursion into a world. . . marked by bad moons, evil winds, backwater magic, and hoodoo curses.”
The New Yorker (Briefly Noted review)
“[A] dark, lyrical debut novel… Cheng imbues the landscape with Faulkner-esque poetry. …the prose is arresting.”
Library Journal
Cheng, an author raised in Queens who lives in Brooklyn, NY, debuts with a novel in the great Southern tradition; think Cormac McCarthy or a 21st-century Faulkner. The story centers on Robert Chatham, a star-crossed African American whose games and first kiss are interrupted by the Mississippi flood of 1927. From the Hollandale refugee camp, Robert is hired as an errand boy at the Beau-Miel Hotel, a surreal brothel burned to the ground by a drunken music promoter. Robert then works as a WPA dynamiter, clearing swamps in rural Mississippi. Later, as an almost-prisoner of a family of feral trappers, the L'Etangs, he becomes involved with the group's lone female member, Frankie. When Robert leaves the L'Etangs, he faces a choice between escaping to the north with Frankie, who herself escaped the swamps, or remaining where he is with the mostly-mad Dora, his first kiss. Curious about the odd title? Wait until the last page. VERDICT This book is a winner for lovers of plot; tough, lyrical writing; history; and the trials of the deep South. [See Prepub Alert, 12/12.]—Robert E. Brown, Oswego, NY
Kirkus Reviews
A wildly ambitious debut novel--vividly imagined, frequently poetic--conjuring the Southern Delta of the first half of the 20th century as a fever dream, steeped in the blues. One of the most frightening songs by the bluesman Robert Johnson is "Hellhound on My Trail." This narrative suggests an elaboration of Johnson's classic, extended to novel length, filtered through Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor. The main musician in the story is a barrelhouse piano player and voodoo shaman, peripheral to the narrative as a whole but pivotal to the life of protagonist Robert Chatham, a boyhood survivor of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. "Houses rose up, bobbled, then smashed together like eggshells. Homes bled out their insides--bureaus, bathtubs, drawers, gramophones--before folding into themselves. The people scrambled up on their roofs, up trees, clinging to one another. The water blew them from their perches, swept them into the drift, smashed them against the debris." Through hopscotching chronology, the plot follows Robert from the apocalyptic flood through a devastating stint as the ward of a bordello (where he meets the piano player who introduces him to both the titular dog and the devil), through his adult years as an itinerant laborer, working to clear the land for a dam that promises "A Shining New South," even as it threatens the livelihood of the backwoods Cajun trappers who give Robert's path another detour. The author's virtuosity occasionally gets the best of him, as when he has Robert's not very reflective or sophisticated father remarking on an evening that finds "everything singing out the great mystery of the world" (which fits thematically but sounds more like a young novelist with an MFA). There are also passages that verge on Faulkner Lite: "The one truth God has ever given to a man. And it's that the past keeps happening to us." Yet it's hard to resist the sweep of Southern history that the author conjures through the experience of his protagonist, the way he makes the devil as palpably real as the natural world that he pervades, blurring the distinction between dreams and destiny. The title suggests a mysterious piece of Southern folk art, and the novel works a similar magic. Not a perfect novel, but a strong voice and a compelling achievement.
The Barnes & Noble Review

"The past is never dead," William Faulkner wrote in his 1950 novel-play Requiem for a Nun. "It's not even past." That line has become the stuff of know-your-history benisons. But Faulkner's intentions were always a bit darker than that: As John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 2012, the driving force of Faulkner's fiction was "the nightmare of the Southern past." Bill Cheng understands this, how history is as much something that gets done to you as something that's been done. Toward the end of his remarkable debut novel, Southern Cross the Dog, a bluesman-prisoner- preacher-mystic named Eli Cutter explains what life in Mississippi has taught him: "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."

It'll do little good to linger too long over correspondences between Faulkner and Cheng, a recently minted MFA who'll inevitably look weaker for the comparison. But Southern Cross the Dog is a book of many marvels, not least of which is Cheng's ability to craft a host of southern voices and sensibilities without effortful, stiff ventriloquism. His story centers on the fate of a young man named Robert Lee Chatham after the Mississippi Flood of 1927 — which, yes, Faulkner depicted in his novella "Old Man." And yes, some familiar archetypes abound: Federal interlopers, Creole trappers, black musicians and white exploiters, brothel owners and preachers. Yet through Robert, Cheng has imagined a story about survival and spirit that's distinct from Faulkner's rhetoric or Flannery O'Connor's eccentric characters. The past isn't past here either, but Cheng's version of the non-past feels rich and new.

We meet Robert as an eight-year-old, just before the flood, which Cheng describes in a voice that is at once graceful, biblical, and deeply local: "Telegraph poles had collapsed together in a nest of crucifixions, their cables willowing into the dark water." After Robert is delivered into the hands of the brothel owner for whom he works odd jobs, his life intersects with those of Eli Cutter and Augustus Duke, the musician's white would-be manager. With each new character, Cheng calibrates a slight tonal shift: Augustus' drunken patrician demeanor has an aura of doom about it, while Eli's mood is one of weariness and fear. For good reason. Eli was a "root man" who wound up in prison for accidentally poisoning a white woman looking to abort a pregnancy, and Cheng relates this passage in his life in a virtuoso set piece that reads like folklore: approving, strange, and thickened by offbeat plant names: johnsongrass, devil's shoestrings, chase-devil, boneset, grooveburr, birthwort, cohosh root.

Eli wears a "devil" around his neck, a flannel bag of organic matter meant to ward off evil spirits. By 1932, Robert acquires one, too, the most potent symbol in the novel of the bind that he's in as a poor black man in the Deep South, at once eager for liberation and unable to shake the feeling of being stalked by a past that left his parents homeless and his brother lynched. The "Dog" of the title lives entirely in his imagination: "a large black hound — lean and sleek — that looked out at him with deep piercing eyes from which no light could escape." But the motivating fear it represents is real enough.

Plotwise, Southern Cross the Dog has the shape of an adventure tale: It tracks Robert's escape from flood and fire, from the brothel to the wilderness where he falls in with a group of fur trappers to the bog where he joins federal workers reshaping the Mississippi swamp to make room for a dam. (Their invocations of a "new shining South" come off much more like a curse than a blessing.) Robert's travels are an opportunity for Cheng to cross- section the South and explore its racial mix as well the tension between the longtime residents and the invading northerners. But more than getting the patois and the history right, Cheng gets the characters right. Robert's childhood friend Dora falls in with a grim salvager named Stuckey, and Cheng invokes his terror with a brushstroke: "Stuckey made a Stuckey shape in the doorway," a line that reveals a supreme confidence on the writer's part in the character he's created and what readers will project upon him.

And beyond getting the characters right, Cheng gets the emotions right. Southern Cross the Dog closes on a redemptive note but, appropriately, not a sunny one. Cheng has cannily imagined southern life — and all life — as a push and pull between what helps you survive and what pulls you under, where there's always "too much time to wrong and be wronged." Where the devil around your neck is your best hope to ward off the devil on your tail.

Mark Athitakis is a writer, editor, critic, and blogger who's spent more than a dozen years in journalism. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Chicago Sun-Times, Minneapolis Star- Tribune, Washington City Paper, and many other publications. He is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Mark Athitakis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062225009
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/7/2013
  • Pages: 324
  • Sales rank: 907,479
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Bill Cheng

Bill Cheng received a BA in creative writing from Baruch College and is a graduate of Hunter College's MFA program. Born and raised in Queens, New York, he currently lives in Brooklyn with his wife. Southern Cross the Dog is his first novel.

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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Bill Cheng, author of Southern Cross the Dog

You were born and raised in New York City, living over a thousand miles and nearly a hundred years from the characters and events in your novel. What compelled you to tell this particular story about a young man in 1920s Mississippi?

Blues music was extremely important to me growing up, especially when I was a teenager. I was a sensitive kid—nerdy, overweight, socially awkward—and blues had a way of vocalizing those bruised and desperate feelings we get from time to time. The music is so simple; but in those lines was everything. Pain and joy and rage and love. The injustice of the world. I listened to that music almost obsessively, particularly country blues players like Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnson, Skip James, Blind Willie McTell. So when it came time to write my first novel, I knew I wanted it to be an homage to the music that has given me so much.

For some readers, the title of your novel resonates immediately. Others are left wondering until the end. Did you have other titles in mind for Southern Cross the Dog as you were writing?

Yes, I did! But it was a different book then. (And no, I won't say what it was.)

Titles are strange things. We tend to think of them as something tacked onto the front of a book—purely decorative like a maidenhead. But for me, this title became a kind of mission statement. It reminded me what I wanted the book to be about—destiny and choice, the yoke of bad fortune, and those mythic touchstones of blues culture. From that point on, the narrative just clicked into place.

The title comes from an account made by composer W.C. Handy. He was at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi when he overheard an itinerant blues musician singing about "going where the Southern cross the Dog." Handy later adapted it for his song "Yellow Dog Blues." Geographically, the title refers to the crossing of two railroad lines, the U.S. Southern and the Y.D. (or Yellow Dog) railroads. But spiritually, I think it's come to mean something else for me—a place of rest, hope, salvation.

Dora's character and story line are particularly compelling. Was it a challenge to inhabit a young girl's heart and frame of mind?

Inhabiting any character that isn't just an extension of oneself is always difficult. But then again, every character must by nature reflect something in its author. All of my characters' fears, their desires had to have bubbled up from someplace in my subconscious.

With Dora, the challenges I encountered were less technical problems and more issues of conscience. In creating Dora, I was forced to write across barriers of both sex and race and there's always been a part of me that worries if that's OK—me being who I am and where I'm from, what right do I have in trying to write from the perspective of a young Southern black girl? In a lot of ways, Dora embodies every anxiety I have about this book. It's easy enough to say, "This is fiction! I made it up!" But that attitude wrongly dismisses a long history this country has of marginalizing the minority voice, be it along the lines of sex or gender or race or region.

In the end, I have to believe that in writing, nothing can be forbidden. That if fiction is to have any meaning at all, that meaning must come in trying to understand each other.

The L'Etangs are unlike any characters we've encountered on the page. At what point in your writing did you decide to have Robert's fate intertwine with this fierce family of trappers?

I think some novels have a way of becoming stale if they're bottled up for too long. It's as if the world has been constructed in a way that is so hermetically complete that the narrative action, at least in part, becomes anticipated. I didn't want that for this book. Some of my favorite novels are those that have these strange forces breaking into the ordered universe.

For me, the L'Etangs provided a way of doing that. Most of the novel takes place in the towns and the countryside where the rules and social mores are pretty well-established. When Robert comes upon the L'Etangs in the swamplands, suddenly those rules are out the window. It was my hope that they let air into the book and remind the reader that the world can be bizarre and unexpected and is growing as they're reading.

Your writing about the natural world is particularly strong yet you live in a concrete jungle. What is your relation to nature? Do you draw from your imagination or are you a secret naturalist?

My wife loves to hike and commune with nature. I'm more of a homebody. Most of the nature I get is the occasional tree and the mildew in my bathroom.

But great nature writes itself. It's like God is showing off and all I have to do is pay attention.

Who have you discovered lately?

Terrence Holt's collection, In the Valley of the Kings. I came to this book when I was pretty much exhausted with both reading and writing short stories. It seemed like a lot of short fiction today hammers on the same kinds of themes, with the same kinds of characters, told through the same kinds of structures. Finding Holt's collection was like finding something wholly new.

These stories have a fierce intellectual streak and a quiet melancholia but they are at their heart adventure stories. There are stories about Egyptologists, and sentient space satellites, and the last days on Earth. Holt handles his subjects with care and gravitas, but underneath is an uncontainable zeal for the material. They're the kind of stories that beg to be read under the covers with the flashlight on.

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Customer Reviews

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( 8 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 7 of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 7, 2013

    "Southern Cross the Dog" by Bill Cheng will sing the b

    "Southern Cross the Dog" by Bill Cheng will sing the blues to those who feel and understand them.

    It defines all the evil in this world, the human suffering, and life itself. It transcends stereotypes. The writing is mesmerizing. The scenes are haunting and vivid. You feel like you are watching an epic movie; all the voices, all the colors coming alive. They will get under your skin. They will be sealed in you forever. This novel is going to become a classic one day.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 2013


    I picked this up because EW gave it a great grade and I see why. This novel is brilliant. It deals with a lonesome part of Louisana and a way of life, trapping, that is long gone. A beautiful historical novel set in the deep south during the early 1900's.

    Highly recommended.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 27, 2013

    I Also Recommend:

    This is a great coming of age story. The writing is crisp and qu

    This is a great coming of age story. The writing is crisp and quick. A truly remarkable book.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2013


    1 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted June 7, 2013

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