Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Blues He's Playin': Bill Cheng's SOUTHERN CROSS THE DOG

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.


Calvin said...

I also read this recently. I thought it terrific, although I agree the last bit didn't come together as well as it could have. (Also problematic: nearly every character in the book, male and female, black and white and some kind of Cajun, has agency and an inner life, except for His One True Love he hooks up with at the end, who came across as a bit of an empty vessel, conveniently mentally and emotionally ill.)

My wife thought it a bit overwritten, and she was irritated, or at least not impressed, by his impulse to verbify.

Overall, however a great novel.

(Also recently read: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's "Americanah")

William Preston said...


I wasn't even clear on why she was his One True Love. He seemed to attach himself to whomever came along. She seemed the least likely of the bunch. I missed that Cajun gal.

I understand your wife's complaint--mostly with regard to the verbs--but to me it only rarely misstepped with the language, forgiveable in a young writer.

I don't know the Adichie. (I think I had his Half of a Yellow Sun out from the library, but didn't start it.) Just started The Crying of Lot 49; I'm about to write something regarding That Championship Season.

Mark Pontin said...

[1] Adichie is a Nigerian female.

[2] I was curious about the Cheng book, just on the basis of the, um, provenance(Chinese-American author).

Really worth reading?

[3] Also, since you're talking about young contemporary and mainstream authors, I've been curious about two recent entries: Nathaniel Rich's ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW (great 1950s SF-style title there!) and Rachel Kushner's THE FLAMETHROWERS.

Any thoughts on those two?

Calvin said...

I don't know about Bill, but I think it (the Cheng book) is worth reading. I didn't love it as much as I loved THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON (which I loved before it won the Pulitzer) but it was one of the books I most enjoyed reading in the past several months.

I've queued up THE FLAMETHROWERS on my Amazon account to order.... Will have to look at Nathaniel Rich's book.

Regarding AMERICANAH -- in some respects HALF OF A YELLOW SUN is a bigger book, because, Nigerian civil war. However AMERICANAH has some sharp observations on race in America. I didn't like the ending, which involved the two main characters getting together when he finally leaves his wife. Except there is no good reason for him to leave his wife except that the other woman is His One True Love. Sorry, I dislike plots like that.

William Preston said...

1. Yeeks. Getting the writer's gender wrong. Nice one, Preston.

2. I'm a slow reader, aware of how any book eats my time. I thought this was quite worthwhile. (But if, 50 pages in, you're not diggin' it, dump it. Read the sample pages on Amazon, if you can't get it from the libes.)

3. Okay, you're sending me to look up more books about which I know nothing. Thanks!

William Preston said...

I agree, The Orphan Master's Son was pretty terrific. I've got a blog post on it.