Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng


Several of the books I'm reviewing this week are about journeys.  Some are for glory but most are simply for survival.  Southern Cross the Dog isn't really either.  It's about a journey but less the journey you take when you're fighting for survival and more the journey when you just happen to be alive.

Robert Chatham is a boy when the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 engulfs his home and town.  His life to that point is gone but the scars of living remain.  Scars like seeing the dead body of his older brother who was murdered for falling in love with a white girl.  Scars like having to watch his father swallow his pride and hand over a rifle to two white hunters who just happen to want it.  Robert's journey throughout the rest of his life takes him around the American South and at times it feels like a challenge to see if every possible bad thing can happen to him.  Wherever Robert goes, a black dog follows and if you are familiar with the Delta Blues, you know a black dog portends disaster.

Southern Cross the Dog is not just the story of Robert.  The book is written in sections that jump around in time and place.  Character threads are picked up and come back to several times.  There is a recently released from prison piano player, his drunken promoter, a brothel Madame, one of her new hires, a logging crew, and a family of patois-speaking fur trappers.  With all of these characters, there are smaller stories and scenes that all add to the whole but the story is less about character and plot than it is about atmosphere.  There is a thick, humid Southern atmosphere to this book.  Bill Cheng is from New York and admits to having never even been to Mississippi (full disclosure:  neither have I) but he gets the feeling right.  It's not quite southern Gothic though there is plenty of grotesquerie.  It's heady and disorienting and Cheng's writing is superb even if you forget that this is his first novel.

If you like this story, you could try Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy, another book about traveling through the South and having terrible, violent things happen to you (it's better than that makes it sound).

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