SOUTHERN CROSS THE DOG is a debut centering on the Great Flood of 1927 along the Mississippi, a tragedy that killed 246 people and left countless families homeless. The flood led to the great migration of African American families toward other states, and Bill Cheng’s first novel hones in on one fictional family whose experiences seem to represent an endless cycle of grief and loss.
The central character is a young man named Robert Chatham, who began with a healthy spirit before a series of striking tragedies become a reality for him --- the flood and racism being the most obvious precipitating events. Robert experiences his first kiss just before the flood hits and then finds himself suddenly losing all of his loved ones along with virtually everyone he knows. He then has to face life alone during an agonizing decade in which he roams endlessly, helpless and aimless, toward death while being forced into frightening adult experiences and witnessing many of the darkest elements of human nature.
"SOUTHERN CROSS THE DOG is a gritty novel with a decidedly dark literary quality, surprising and mysterious, tormenting and tortuous, and continuously unpredictable."
The brutalities that take place here seem to come at the hands of perfect strangers, while others do come from Robert’s own making or those of his loved ones. Through everything he endures, Robert seems to discover that his deepest scars come from his own mistakes. Hyperaware of his sins and flaws, he becomes a wasted soul in the prime of his life, a twentysomething haunted by the crushing realizations of his useless spirit, filled with despair and awareness of his abandonment.
Forced to grow up on the run, the boy becomes a man who trusts in nothing and believes in nothing. He learns to survive without really living, becoming the captive of unscrupulous humans who seek survival at any cost. Many abuse him, and everyone he meets seems to take advantage of him in some way, however subtle. As he gains many new experiences and meets new people, Robert begins to numbly attempt to understand where all his pain is coming from and to see it all in an external form.
Without hope, he wanders through life in a refugee camp at a hotel, as the slave of a dangerous family of trappers who haunt the Mississippi swamps, a worker in a whorehouse where he temporarily finds the compassion and affection of prostitutes. Everywhere Robert seems to be doing nothing but filling his day. Everywhere he turns, there is crime and exploitation, and eventually death. Death alone Robert cannot escape, and he begins to see the source of all evil as the dark side of his own nature --- a devil who torments him.
Robert’s fears haunt him increasingly in the form of a “dog” until he becomes convinced that he’s being followed by a malicious split of his own soul. His perceptions are made real because of his beliefs in the power of voodoo and his own deeply hidden feelings of inadequacy. Throughout his travels, readers question the reality of this dog, whether it is in fact a product of a twisted psychology or a tangible creature. The question of reality versus split psychology grows increasingly blurred and difficult to discern once the boy becomes a man and finds himself both the victim and the tormentor, while his every fear takes on a life of its own and makes reality impossible to see clearly.
SOUTHERN CROSS THE DOG is a gritty novel with a decidedly dark literary quality, surprising and mysterious, tormenting and tortuous, and continuously unpredictable. Though somber overall, it is also thoughtful and artistic, seemingly filled with opaque meanings and bitter ironies, and nowhere is the reader spared the blatant truths of the time. This is a book that forces one to consider many uncomfortable truths and to think about the subtlety of the themes. It comes off as a mystical, engrossing read meant for hardy enthusiasts of dark literature with a historical bent.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on May 15, 2013