‘Southern Cross the Dog’
By Bill Cheng
Four out of five bookmarks
Bill Cheng’s debut novel “Southern Cross the Dog” is a gritty, dark odyssey that explores the lives of three people, and how each is caught between the harsh, tragic living world and the enigmatic, enticing supernatural world.
Robert Chatham believes he is “jinxed,” a curse that is bound to follow him for his entire life. As a young boy, he survives the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, but then his parents leave him in the care of a brothel proprietress before vanishing forever, presumably dead.
Robert spends the next years of his life running errands for the Beau-Miel bordello, while also confronting his darkest fears and the various dangers that target him. Eli Cutter, convicted for the murder of a young girl, is released into the custody of a man who wishes to use Eli for profit, by exploiting him as a criminal-musician in a traveling music show.
Meanwhile, Robert’s childhood friend Dora — the first girl to ever kiss him — was sold by her uncle during the Great Flood to a salvager who takes her away to live in the swamp. She is torn between the unyielding pulls of both living forces as well as of the deceased. These three characters’ journeys portray a savage depiction of the early 20th century American South, and reveal the demons both physical and emotional that each must battle against.
Cheng does a superb job of molding voices, both for his characters and as a narrator. He maintains a good balance between the concise, clear third-person narration and the characters’ dialogue, speaking in the dialects of the time period and region. There is a point in the novel where the third person switches abruptly into first person, and while this is initially jarring, the engaging dialogue makes it easy for the reader to transition after a few pages. The overall tone and mood of the book are perhaps its strongest aspects, allowing the reader to become fully submerged in the intense emotions and atmosphere of the story.
While the characters’ back stories are riveting, and the situations that they are placed in are briskly paced and well-written, the characters themselves don’t seem as deeply developed as they could have been. We get glimpses into what the characters are thinking and we see how they react to the perils that befall them, but I never got a true sense of “who” the characters were.
There are stories where you feel as if you have directly stepped into a character’s skin, that you are experiencing everything that person is. I felt in “Southern Cross the Dog,” however, that I was always on the outside looking in, seeing what the characters were doing but not getting a real sense of why.
But maybe it’s not the characters’ skins that the reader is truly stepping into; maybe it’s the environment, the ether surrounding the characters that we absorb. The supernatural elements of the story — mystical voodoo-style practices, the whispers of deceased relatives, talismans and objects of superstition — create a “character” that influences the others and their actions. The concept of every individual having a personal “devil” comes up multiple times, and perhaps it is as real a presence as any human being in the novel. Perhaps the reader is viewing the story within the skin of the “jinx,” that air of trouble that pursues all of the protagonists, and even the antagonists, wherever they go.
“Southern Cross the Dog” will be released this May, and will hopefully be an enthusiastically received novel that will in particular speak to fans of Cormac McCarthy’s and Flannery O’Connor’s works. Cheng has crafted a stirring tale that can be spine tingling as a ghostly whisper, and heart pounding as a tide-crashing storm.
Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? Email her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.