I can't discuss this book without the discussing another book, which I set down at the halfway point. The Yellow Birds, by Iraq war veteran Kevin Powers, came highly recommended from some-list-or-other. I felt that novel moving too slowly, circling a central event that felt like it might not be terribly compelling, in language that, while often lovely and evocative, failed to advance its flawed-men-at-war story to my satisfaction. The prose worked too hard without much to show for it, reminding me of a metaphor from Henry James: "a screw hammered into wood." It's not a bad book, and the writer is possessed of skill and thoughtfulness, but I grew tired of it, jumped to browse its climax, and put it aside.
The next book recommended to me by someone's list was young writer Bill Cheng's debut novel, Southern Cross the Dog, and at first, I worried that I was seeing another book that functioned by style rather than story. There's some of that—and the story doesn't come together at the end as I'd hoped it might—but Cheng is capable of more variation in his tempo. He might linger over a description, but more often, he dispenses his observations both briskly and poetically, and there's a pulsing momentum to the entire novel. He reminds me of Ron Hansen, turning any available part of speech into a verb when need be, and the sentences don't catch in your throat or eye, but flow marvelously.
The story follows several characters, and it took some time for me to realize that the center of the tale is Robert Chatham, a black boy who becomes a man of his own making in the course of the novel. Eight years old at the time of the Mississippi Flood of 1927 that displaces his already damaged family, Robert becomes an itinerant and rootless figure who gets knocked out or nearly killed way too many times over the years. (Several ploys and plot elements are visited too many times in the book.) People come and go and come in his story, and the coincidences would probably perturb evens Dickens. Various other vivid characters intersect with Robert, most notably ex-con and blues musician Eli Cotter (who, sadly and surprisingly, doesn't return after too early a departure). Robert sweeps floors at a brothel, flees the Klan, winds up among backwoods trappers, and clings to life even at its most painful.
Reviewers have noted the border crossing done by the author: a Chinese-American who lives in the Northeast, Cheng writes of a time, place, and people of whom he has no direct knowledge, his sources, largely, the blues musicians he loves. For my money, he pulls off the endeavor, capturing various styles of speech and the troubled souls of suffering blacks and whites. I do wonder what a black reader would make of it—especially a Southern black reader.
It's an exciting debut, terrific for much of its length, and, though not completely satisfying at the end, often satisfying in its parts.
Postscript: It gives nothing away to reveal that the title—which is not explained in the novel—refers to two railroads, the Southern and the Dog: as in, "where the Southern cross[es] the Dog." I'm relying on the New York Times for that explanation.