Saturday, January 28, 2023

City Slicker Knows Where Southern Crosses Dog

Bill Cheng
Bill Cheng

New Yorker has the goods in book set in Mississippi

My name is Emily, and I am a Southern literature snob.

Since that is all out in the open, you can only imagine how skeptical I was when I received a copy of Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog (Ecco, May 7th). Cheng was born and raised in Queens, New York, attended the very prestigious Baruch College where he received a BA in creative writing, followed by an MFA from Hunter College, both in New York City. He currently lives in Brooklyn, and Southern Cross the Dog is his first novel.

Um, that’s a LOADED book title. I read W.C. Handy’s Father of the Blues several years ago, and he tells his story of being at Tutwiler, Mississippi train station in 1903. There was a black man, playing a guitar with a knife, and he was singing about “goin’ where Southern cross the dog.” The gritty and raw primitive music made him reconsider his classic approach, and the rest is history. Handy made it famous in his song “Yellow Dog Blues,” and there is a sign in Moorehead to mark the railroad crossing “Where Southern Crosses the Dog.”

Bill Cheng is being compared to Cormac McCarthy and Flannery O’Connor, and Library Journal thinks he is a 21st Century FAULKNER. Bill Cheng is also a Chinese-American writer, born and raised in NEW YORK. You can only imagine my skepticism. It was laid on pretty thick.

The book begins like this:

“When I was a baby child, they put the jinx on me.

It was in my drink and food and milk. And when I ran, it heavied in my bones and when I sang, it stopped up my throat and when I loved, it let from me, hot and poisonous.

I saw it in my daddy, the hard lines of his face, that uneasy lope—how in his years he didn’t lift his feet, but slid them, soles across this gritted earth. It settled in my mama, trembled her voice and blanked her eyes. My brother, Billy, locked it inside him and it carried him 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 again.”

My bad, y’all. Bill Cheng totally sets words on fire.

Robert Chatham is torn from his home by the Flood of 1927. Robert and his parents are rescued and taken to a refugee camp. His father pays a nice lady take Robert away to Hotel Beau-Miel, a brothel in Bruce, Mississippi. Really bad stuff happens there when he is being cared for of by some whores with very good intentions, and he travels to the swamp and finds himself being kidnapped by seriously crazy fur trappers. It’s Southern, all right.

Bill Cheng will visit Square Books on May 21st at 5 p.m. I’ll be there in full force to shake the hand of one of America’s new major voices in fiction.

And I will never judge an author based on where they came from ever again.

emilygatlinEmily Gatlin spent four years as the manager of an independent bookstore in Mississippi. In 2012, she was nominated to serve on the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Board of Directors. She is a contributor for Book Riot, Food Riot, and also writes for Invitation Oxford and Mud & Magnolias Magazine. Occasionally, she updates her own blog, A Prose For Emily.