Southern Cross the Dog
Cheng’s impressive debut is a journey along the back roads of Southern history, at a time—the ‘20s and ‘30s—when it is dangerous just to be young and black. Robert Chapman is only eight years old when his odyssey begins, and although his early life was far from trouble free, it seems like heaven looking back.
When the Great Flood destroys their Mississippi home in 1927, Robert’s father leaves him with a brothel owner for reasons the boy comprehends—his mother’s breakdown, his brother’s murder, his own helplessness—but Robert grows up feeling abandoned. Unworthiness follows him like a jinx or a devil, as he calls it, from the brothel when it burns down, to months of backbreaking labor as a teenager, and virtual imprisonment in the swamp, where he kills a man to save himself. Robert says he “can’t get clean.” Even integrity seems like a curse when he gives up freedom for his first love; but Robert’s not a sad man. “For you,” he says, “I will sing and dance and stomp my feet to beat the Devil.” Man’s humanity is always more remarkable than his survival.
The intricate and sometimes overwhelming plot is carried by strong characters and an adroit use of language. Cheng, a New Yorker, was drawn to Southern history by the music; the title, which comes from the early blues, refers to the railroads. He writes in a patois all his own, for the most part convincingly, of a terrible place in which “the past keeps happening.” Readers will look forward to more from this talented writer, perhaps with a less familiar setting. Southern Cross the Dog is highly recommended.