Until a couple of months ago, Bill Cheng, a Chinese-American writer born and raised in Queens, had never set foot in the South, much less in Mississippi, where his debut novel, “Southern Cross the Dog,” takes place.
But he has always loved the blues. Inspired by its classic themes and motifs — the Devil at the crossroads, men and women born under a bad sign, the day the levees broke, hard labor at Parchman Farm, men whose mojo worked but had hellhounds always on their trail — he set his story in the Delta, where all those things were born.
And then he added the worst that could happen: the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.
Robert Lee Chatham, whose story forms the core of the book, is a kind of hard-luck Everyman, the guy the blues are always about. He can’t catch a break. By the time he’s 8 years old, Robert is already haunted by his older brother’s death and his mother’s grief, and, in the first few pages, is orphaned by the flood when his father delivers him to a brothel for safekeeping.
There, where Robert begins his work as a cleanup boy, he meets up with Eli Cutter, the conjure man who will diagnose Robert as “bad crossed” and give him a “Devil bag.” It will protect him from the very thing that blues greats sang about:
“’There ain’t no God and there ain’t no Devil, just a lot of Bad blowing through this world. Sometimes that Bad will come up on people, find them out like a length of lightning. It fix its eye on you and dog you worse than God or the Devil or just about anybody. It rides around with you, hanging from your neck there, all through your days. It tell you lies to make you mad, or tie up your feet and make you fall. A kind of Bad that don’t ever come off. You understand? Near everybody’s got a Devil. Some folks got two or three. That one in that bag? That one is yours.’ He patted the pouch with two fingers. ‘And this’ll keep you safe.’”
So how does the South stack up, described by someone who’s never been here? It holds its own, from the ghostly lyricism of the flood-drenched landscape to the misery and squalor of the refugee camp.
There’s a confidence in Cheng’s voice, an ability to fully inhabit his characters’ skins, their place, their era. It may not be your South, but he makes it his, down to the smallest detail.