In the tradition of Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor, Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog is an epic literary debut in which the bonds between three childhood friends are upended by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. In its aftermath, one young man must choose between the lure of the future and the claims of the past.
Having lost virtually everything in the fearsome storm—home, family, first love—Robert Chatham embarks on an odyssey that takes him through the deep South, from the desperation of a refugee camp to the fiery and raucous brothel Hotel Beau-Miel and into the Mississippi hinterland, where he joins a crew hired to clear the swamp and build a dam.
Along his journey he encounters piano-playing hustlers, ne’er-do-well Klansmen, well-intentioned whores, and a family of fur trappers, the L’Etangs, whose very existence is threatened by the swamp-clearing around them. The L’Etang brothers are fierce and wild but there is something soft about their cousin Frankie, possibly the only woman capable of penetrating Robert’s darkest places and overturning his conviction that he’s marked by the devil.
Teeming with language that renders both the savage beauty and complex humanity of our shared past, Southern Cross the Dog is a tour de force that heralds the arrival of a major new voice in fiction.
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About the Author
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.
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 kidnerdy, overweight, socially awkwardand 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 bookpurely 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 aboutdestiny 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 mea 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 OKme 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.