Another trip to the American South with “Southern Cross the Dog”

Since I’m new to blogging, I’m still not sure if I’ll review every book I read or not.  But after finishing Southern Cross the Dog, by Bill Cheng (Harper Collins Publishers, 2013), it occurred to me that I had just been immersed in a vastly different experience of the South from my previously posted book, Finding Me, and that it could be interesting to explore the differences.

Southern Cross the Dog is another novel that I might not have chosen on my own.  My sister handed it to me a few weeks ago, and I trust her instincts.  (She’s the one with the English literature degree, after all!)  The description on the jacket intrigued me, as did the title.  In short, it tells the story of Robert Chatham, an African-American living in pre-World War II Jim Crow Mississippi.   I actually had no idea what the title meant when I started, but usually in these situations the book itself clarifies this by the end.  Not so here.  In fact, after the Epilogue, I put the book down and did a mental “Huh?”  So, this being 2014, I got on Google.  It turns out the title refers to where two railroad lines crossed in Mississippi.  Hmmm.  Given that there is only one passing reference to Robert being caught riding the rails during the Depression, I still don’t get the point of the title.  Bill Cheng mentions in his Acknowledgements that the book is dedicated to a long list of blues musicians, none which I’d ever heard of, so maybe there’s an explanation of the title buried in music I’ve never heard.  There’s also a “dog” that lurks around off and on during the novel, though that’s another confusing aspect of the narration.  I was never really sure if the dog actually existed, was a figment of Robert’s imagination, or a metaphor for the bad luck that “dogged” this character.

As I searched for an explanation of the title, I ended up reading several reviews by writers much better qualified than I to analyze the book (we’re talking writers for the New York Times and Boston Globe here).  What struck me repeatedly, though,  is that they had the same doubts and observations I did.  As I read, I found myself questioning the authenticity of a narration written by a young Chinese American man living in New York, and this was mentioned by every reviewer.  This is Bill Cheng’s first novel, and my impression was that he was “trying on” every narrative style to come out of the South, from William Faulkner to Flannery O’Connor to Toni Morrison.  The difference, of course, is that he’s not writing from a place of personal experience.  The result reminded me of a “crazy quilt”.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a powerful book worth reading.  There are moments of beautiful description and dialog, the story is compelling, there are fascinating and diverse characters, and the movement back and forth in time (from 1927 to 1941) kept me constantly wondering where the story would go next.  The reader experiences cataclysmic flooding reminiscent of Katrina, heartbreaking racial injustice, the birth of “blues” music, the disappearing lifestyle of Cajun swamp trappers, and the optimism of WPA projects.  I wonder, though, if a reader less obsessed with history than I would even be able to make sense of all these disparate threads.  And lurking at the back of my mind was a distrust of the entire experience.  I read because I crave learning as much as I can about this world, and because when I can’t actually travel and immerse myself in different cultures and time periods, reading is the next best thing.  I certainly did experience a different time and place, but filtered through one writer’s interpretation of what HE had read and imagined.  All fiction is, by definition, the result of an author’s imagination.  But I find that when a novelist writes from a place of authenticity, I find myself more willing to believe his or her voice.

Finding Me and Southern Cross the Dog are about as different as two novels can be.  In Beth Hoffman’s world, we experience a genteel and gentle modern South, narrated in a friendly and sometimes cloyingly informal manner.  If there are African-American characters, they are alluded to only obliquely, the inference being that race relations are a problem of the past and the real issue of the present is how to protect wildlife and the environment.  Bill Cheng shows us a brutal South in the not-too-distant past from the imagined perspective of black characters, where the environment is only one of many oppressors, and where white men (there seem to be no white women) are at best indifferent, and at worst blatantly evil and exploitative.  I’m not convinced that either novel is a truly accurate reflection of the “real” South.  But maybe that’s the point.  When I visit the South (most recently New Orleans), I sense a mysterious undercurrent that my white Colorado upbringing will never allow me to really understand, only observe and imagine.  Maybe that’s why so many authors search for material there and why so many readers are willing to go along.




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