Author Bill Cheng's imagination, like his first novel set in the Mississippi Delta, "Southern Cross the Dog," is as fertile as the dark, rich alluvial soil that has made the region's literary landscape legendary. The poetry of his prose lays as thick on the tongue as the intoxicating brown liquid in the bottom of a honky tonk whiskey glass. It is a novel meant to be savored to the last drop —or page, as the case may be. Cheng is able to channel the personalities of 1920s Prohibition-era Mississippi into a sprawling, rollicking novel that spans 10 years and just a few square miles.Cheng's plot is as twisting as the mighty river itself. Young Robert Chatham, the great floodwaters of the Mississippi having receded into his memory, is all alone in the world, his parents dead. A lady named Miss Lucy who runs a hotel/brothel is his surrogate in the hill country town of Bruce, far away from the river's raging waters. Robert encounters bluesmen, witch doctors and sultry temptresses all the while guided and protected in his travels across the rural Mississippi Delta landscape by a mojo amulet of sorts. "Southern Cross the Dog," a literal lifting of a name given to a spot in the Delta where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson was said to have traded his soul to the devil in order to miraculously play the blues like a virtuoso, is the title of this first literary effort by the Queens, New York-born Cheng.The reader is introduced to a salon of interesting characters. A girl claiming to have a dress as a gift from the King of Spain tasks young Robert with removing a rust stain from it, and he relentlessly tries to no avail, scrubbing away as if he were trying to remove a painful blotch from the young woman's past. He becomes skilled at helping others escape torment and free themselves from their own sins and transgressions but not necessarily his own. Eli Cutter is a Mississippi bluesman with a gift for song and women. "They said he was a black jinx, that when you shook his hand, you could feel a bad wind move through you. Chill you to the core.” Miss Lucy, the hotel owner/brothel madam, is described as a "sexy woman — plump and heavily bosomed with a voice that rang deep and sooty." Duke, Eli's handler, is portrayed as as a slick huckster who is part showman, part "shaman." Cheng pulls off a feat not accomplished in recent years by native-born writers of the Southern milieu. Just as one might have been led to believe the fertile soil of the Southern literary landscape had been plowed fallow, the fecund prose of Bill Cheng snaps one's head around like a prison overseer's bullwhip.During the course of the novel, young Robert realizes he will never return to his lost Delta home, that the pig trails and cow paths he left behind on his way to the hill country have been lost in a maze of misbegotten memories. He must simply survive with his own wits and cunning. It is a lesson the reader takes to heart as Robert encounters one mysterious stranger after another. Cheng, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, is an Asian-American who grew up about as far away from the Mississippi Delta as the Silicon Valley-made Martian land rover now probing that distant planet. In a recent interview, Cheng said he has nothing but sympathy for critics who insist one has to be born in a region like the American South to write convincingly about its evocative and often exotic nature. Cheng not only turns that premise on its head, he blows it out of the water. Southern Cross the Dog is written by someone, who appears to be an old soul at first glance, until one turns over to the inside of the dust jacket to reveal the youthful face of its author. Cheng strikes one as a well-traveled, well-seasoned storyteller, when in fact he is a wunderkind of sorts, imbued with a fantastical imagination who perfectly captures the power of lust and love, danger, compassion and good and evil that hovers across the heat-blistered Mississippi Delta like a shimmering mirage.Cheng conjures up the visual imagery of late afternoon thunderstorms with all of their wild fury, and the god-awful texture of lye hominy as it slides down the back of one's throat. The writer skillfully and deftly navigates his way through the towns and hamlets of Mississippi with such ease that one forgets he has only been a literal visitor on just a few occasions. There are echoes of Southern greats in his work like "powder blue church dress," which reminds this writer of Eudora Welty and the "way her dress flowered up around her," which is reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor.There are idiosyncratic intricacies inherent in Cheng's prose which point to someone who has meticulously studied an alien culture and become a creature of that world himself. Life's journey can be particularly bruising as Robert, who progresses from age eight to 13 in the novel, discovers after being brutally beat up by a gang of white boys. There is a musky eroticism which is evoked from his female characters and a certain impotent fury from his male characters, with the exception of Eli Cutter, who possesses extraordinary passion and talent, and Cheng's own personal favorite character in the novel. Eli Cutter can play the blues with such mysterious power that it leaves his honky tonk audiences slack-jawed. The same can be said about Bill Cheng's writing. It is as if Cheng himself writes under the spell of a little backwater magic.Let us hope that unlike Robert Johnson, Cheng outlives this early inspirational figure. Whatever promises he has made to be able to write like this will likely remain with Cheng to the grave. Let us hope that Cheng continues to take hold of the literary plow and guide us along other journeys and other landscapes in the years to come. Southern Cross the Dog is published by Ecco, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, in New York.
Cross the Dog
A powerful trip
Story by Robet Long
Arts & Culture | Books | August 2013
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