Rarely is literature as breathtakingly lyrical and searing in its imagery as Southern Cross the Dog, a novel by Bill Cheng.
So bewitching are the descriptions of a hapless Mississippi, one alternately buffeted by the Great Flood of 1927 and ruthlessly deforested by the foundation work for a dam in 1941, that the mesmerized reader will mostly overlook the story’s thinness of plot and lack of cohesion. Every so often, when the spell breaks and discriminating faculties reassert themselves, criticism of the story’s shortcomings proves similar to that of a sports spectator who knows that a favorite athlete’s performance, a personal best, could have been even better. This becomes all the more remarkable when you consider that Southern Cross the Dog is a debut novel, its author born and bred in New York City, where he continues to reside.
In Greek mythology, the River Styx divides Earth and the Underworld, where stands Cerberus, the ferocious three-headed guard dog. In Cheng’s postdiluvian Mississippi, the overflowing Mississippi River submerges the dividing line between the two worlds. Hell is high water, and an enigmatic, ominous creature called “the Dog” roams free, pursuing the protagonist, Robert Lee Chatham.
For much of the book, the story follows Robert, a sympathetically portrayed but frustratingly opaque African-American, through four distinct periods in his life. As an eight-year-old boy, he busies himself playing outdoor games with his friends. But the Great Flood of 1927 thrusts him and his parents into refugeedom. The waters smash through a levee in Issaquena County, demolish an adjoining camp that houses workers who had tried to buttress it and inundate the entire area—including the Chatham home: “The river burst forward and the levee crumbled under it, tearing through the camp, through forest, rising up in a great yellow wall, driving close, fast, screaming like a train, its roar sucking up the sky, a voice crowning open like the Almighty.”
Next, it’s 1931, and a 13-year-old Robert works as a live-in houseboy at Hotel Beau-Miel, an inn-cum-brothel in the small town of Bruce, some 100 miles away. He pines for his parents, who entrusted him to the brothel’s madam so that he would not go hungry.
In a third encounter, in 1941, we catch up with Robert as a grown man trying to outrun a curse in the form of a creature—the Dog—forever at his heels; the curse leads him to abandon work on an enormous dam in Yazoo County’s Panther Swamp, where he falls into the captivity of fur trappers irate because the dam threatens their livelihood.
Finally, a fourth section, set later in 1941, concerns Robert’s restless sojourn in the town of Anguilla.
An omniscient narrator relates Robert’s saga chronologically. Cheng intersperses his protagonist’s tale with stories plunging into the experiences of other characters affected by the Great Flood. Robert has fateful encounters with several, a couple of whom narrate their own travails, though the overall connections between separate storylines remain tenuous.
One of these digressions: In 1932, we meet Eli, a convict and former (self-taught) blues pianist with a legendary reputation on the chitlin’ circuit—“He earned himself a name as a demon on an upright.” White would-be music promoter Augustus Duke buys Eli’s freedom, intending to make a mark on the world with this black prodigy. A flashback chapter delves into Eli’s experiences at a camp for workers building a levee in the aftermath of the Great Flood, where a (possibly unjustified) manslaughter rap lands him in jail. Eli’s first port of call following his release in ’32 is Hotel Beau-Miel, where Robert resides.
Piano man Eli’s story, were it expanded, would make a dark, thrilling, music-laced novel all its own. But Cheng conceives of Eli’s tale in utilitarian terms—it’s a conduit to infuse Robert’s saga with the novel’s central conceit. For it is Eli who, when he makes Robert’s acquaintance at Beau-Miel, corrals the particular devil stalking him and tucks it into a small flannel pouch, which he then closes and gives the puzzled boy. “You see this little string here?” he says to Robert. “You put it around your neck like this, and you don’t let anyone ever take it away from you. Don’t ever take your devil out, because he might not let you put him back in. Don’t lose it, don’t show it to nobody, and don’t you play around with it.”
Robert, Eli explains to him, is “crossed worse than the blackest jinx. Bad and trouble is set to follow you through this earth, you understand me?”
Fast forward to 1941. We meet indomitable but lovelorn Frankie L’Etang, wife to one of two fur trappers who abduct Robert after he abandons his dam-building job. Out in Panther Swamp, the L’Etangs live an isolated existence and speak a French-flavored English (they pronounce his name “Rowbear”). They make Robert aware of the environmental and ecological effects of the dam-building work. The L’Etangs’ way of life will soon end through the slow encroachment of the outside world. Robert’s male captors, Bossjohn and Roan, stubbornly believe that their sabotaging of dam builders’ machinery every now and again may ward off the inevitable. Yet signs of doom proliferate all around them, in “the stretches of blighted country – long water-ways of dead water, blown-out hills, swaths of nuded grass and timberland.”
The trappers go off to hunt and leave Robert with Frankie. Robert and the outwardly tough but lonely lady stumble into an unconventional and forbidden romantic relationship. “She fell upon him, and in his shock, he found himself holding her. This white woman.” Cheng lays bare Frankie’s vulnerabilities, while briefly granting Robert, for the first and last time, an emotional accessibility the reader savors.
Indeed, though intriguing, Robert often proves impenetrable, especially when it comes to his death wish—which precedes his acquaintance with his personal devil. At one point in ’32, Robert feels compelled to jump off the roof of Beau-Miel. (This incident leads Eli to warn him of his devil and give him the pouch.) Reason for Robert’s behavior may lie in his longing for home and hearth. In a moving and poetic sequence, Cheng describes Robert finding a map at Beau-Miel and scouring it for the location not just of his home, but his past:
[H]e could see the stretch of the Mississippi River, a jagged blue vein from Minnesota to New Orleans, opening south, spilling into the ocean. And off the blue snaking line lay the postage-stamp-sized borders of Issaquena County. On the page, it was only inches inland from Bruce, and not the hundred-some-odd miles of ravaged country he’d traveled. With his thumb, he traced the roads to the hatched lines where his home may have been. It was no use. He couldn’t match the map to the country in his head, the anonymous roads, the bending land.
Cheng uses the devil’s curse to drive the plot and give it direction, but also to position Robert’s subsequent misadventures not as meanderings but as a series of attempts to outrun the eerie pall that shadows him. Yet the curse only confuses. Robert believes that his devil pouch “had protected him”—indeed, had prevented him from dying when he tried to kill himself on more than one occasion. But what of the hellhound stalking him? Is it a manifestation of the devil? “And now came the Dog,” observes a resigned Robert at one point. “For what end, he could not be sure. To warn or threaten or to collect upon some soul debt? It did not matter.”
The Dog itself frightens—“Its hind legs lay tucked under its muscular body, foam gathered thick on its muzzle. … A thick sappy filament unspooled from its chops”—but it’s no Cerberus. And with the revelation, late in the novel, that the entire story of the devil and the Dog may have been a hoax on the part of Eli, to which Robert’s fertile imagination fell prey, the reader may feel cheated. Reader and Robert turn out to be the butt of a devilish shaggy dog joke.
Still, the majesty of this loosely structured and underplotted novel lies in its evocation of atmosphere, its fresh language, and, all too rarely, the probing of certain characters’ deepest emotions. Cheng scatters his gems throughout the story; only in the chapters relating Robert’s burgeoning relationship with Frankie does he bring them together.
Cheng’s other major achievement with Southern Cross the Dog? He steers his own (exhilaratingly careening) literary course, connecting 20th century Mississippi history, inescapable parallels to the 21st century Hurricane Katrina disaster in Louisiana, and Southern Gothic roadside spectacles. This last feature of Southern Cross the Dog assumes particular significance, because it exerts the strongest atmospheric influence on the story—without suffocating it. Even with its geographic and cultural setting, near-Biblically apocalyptic landscape, chthonic undercurrent, brooding mood, and all-around creepiness, the novel resists the stylized grotesquerie of Southern Gothic literature.
Indeed, although Southern Cross the Dog hungrily assimilates disparate influences, it melds them into something unique. Yes, Cheng fails to craft fully realized storylines with meaningful intersections. But he fashions enthralling characters, unsettled and unsettling, who inhabit a terrifying environment.
His world, battered by natural disaster and abused by industrialization, emerges vengeful and punishing.
Rayyan Al-Shawaf is a writer and book critic in Beirut.