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Southern Cross the Dog, by Bill Cheng, Picador, RRP£14.99 / Ecco, RRP$25.99, 336 pages
William Styron might be rolling in his grave, and his critics must be raging in theirs. When the white Virginian published The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), a first-person account of an antebellum black man’s failed effort to lead a slave revolt, Styron met with high dudgeon condemnations from a number of black intellectuals for allegedly perpetrating a novel-length act of voice and identity theft.
Nearly five decades later, Bill Cheng, a young American writer of Chinese descent and New York co-ordinates, has been winning wide attention, and courting no comparable controversy, for a debut novel set in Jim Crow-era Mississippi that attends to the lamentations and tribulations of poor black folk and features over-the-top racialised dialect amid piles of southern-fried prose. This stark difference in reception could suggest that literary culture has moved on from the wars over authenticity that Styron’s work perfectly sustained. More likely, Cheng’s effort is so obviously an ardent, detached literary exercise, and his own background so plainly exempt from America’s deep-cut black-white conflicts, that criticising him on the grounds of voice appropriation would be like trying to fault a karaoke singer for lacking originality.
In fact, Southern Cross the Dog is, in many respects, a novel-length equivalent of a very good karaoke performance. It’s full of literary and musical elements that expertly recall, playfully conjure, and occasionally succeed in reviving the lyricism, grit, violence, and rambling Bible-thumped Gothic textures of the American South’s greatest storytelling, from the likes of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and bluesmen Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters. But this novel is more than a mere extended homage to the author’s favourite writers and musicians; at least, it gamely strives to be more than that.
The book concerns the blighted times of Robert Lee Chatham, a black boy living in late 1920s rural Mississippi who, at the age of eight, is left at an orphanage by his destitute and dysfunctional parents in the aftermath of a cataclysmic flood. Robert grows up fatalistically convinced that he’s living under a curse, and there’s little to suggest otherwise as he moves around the Great Depression and second world war-era South. He’s beaten up and beaten down everywhere he goes; he nearly drowns while working on a Tennessee Valley Authority dam-works, only then to be taken captive by an itinerant family of sadistic and incestuous Cajun trappers; eventually, he reunites with a strong sweet girl he knew from his Eden-like childhood before the great flood and gingerly tries for a better life.
The storyline is convoluted, if not ridiculous at times, but it provides Cheng with a premise and sequence of events well-fitted to the shaggy show-off writing on display throughout the novel, from its first page, where Robert tells us that the jinx on him has “heavied in my bones” from birth, just as it has already taken his late brother Billy “low into that deep earth, silting then into the river and dew and air, in the moths and bee catchers, borne skyward and, as will be, lowed again, into earth again”.
Readers will enjoy Cheng’s capacity for channelling classic southern voices, mindsets, moods and mores – or more accurately, his capacity for channelling literary and musical renderings of these classic southern ways – until, eventually, they begin to wonder how much more there is to this book than muscular and mellifluous mimicry. One indicator to the negative on this score is the novel’s disjointed chronology and shifting viewpoints: the book jumps back and forth across three decades, and moves from character to character in Robert’s orbit, ostensibly recalling Faulkner’s famed methods. But Cheng offers no comparable attention to the higher order questions of temporal experience and perspectival knowledge that were of a piece with Faulkner’s experiments. In other words, Cheng’s great achievement here is essentially reminding us how much greater Faulkner’s was.
But when he stops trying to prove his undeniable talents as a literary ventriloquist, Cheng can tell a flat-out good story. The book’s best stretch is a section set in 1941 that involves Robert only briefly, but crucially. The action takes place at the swampy, mosquito-clouded construction site of a dam going up across the Yazoo River, and in this sweltering place Cheng binds together seething and open tensions around class, race, history and politics that surge among the mutually threatened and threatening workers, management, and locals. All of this material only matters insofar as it frames and informs a pressure-filled human situation, where loyalty, sacrifice and courage ultimately lead a flawed young man to a daring and shocking act.
When this well-wrought and engrossing story is over, we go back to Cheng’s main material – his chitlin-chompin’ karaoke work, which right away feels like a louder, lesser marvel, and not just compared to the true old-time wonders of Faulkner and friends.
Randy Boyagoda’s ‘Beggar’s Feast’ will be published in the UK by Penguin in 2014