Until his book tour last month, 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, (Ecco, $25.99) takes place.
But his love for the blues brought him close to the real thing. Inspired by its classic themes and motifs — the Devil waiting at the crossroads, men and women stalked by bad luck since they began to crawl, the day the levees broke, life down on Parchman Farm, men whose mojo worked but couldn’t keep the hellhounds off 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 anchors the book, is a kind of hard-luck Everyman, the guy the blues are always about. He can’t catch a break. “When I was a baby child, they put the jinx on me,” he says, echoing the familiar lines of Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man.”
By the time he’s eight 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 hands him over to the madam of 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 like Robert Johnson, Son House, Howlin’ Wolf and Charley Patton 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.
Indeed, Robert’s bad luck dogs him, but can’t kill him. Because of it, no pleasure is his for long, including his love for a haughty young prostitute, a paying job working for the WPA to help dredge Panther Swamp, or his relationship with Frankie, a fur trapper whose cousins kidnap Robert and use him to sabotage the WPA’s work.
In chapters that stream backward and forward in time, and in prose that swirls and eddies like the flood itself, other characters appear and tell their stories: Robert’s first love, Dora, whose good luck takes the form of a ghost who hates mirrors; Duke, a black-hearted entrepreneur whose Faustian bargain with Eli exploits more than his musical gift; Lucy, the stiletto-wielding madam of the brothel, Hotel Beau-Miel.
And especially Eli, the troubled ex-con and piano player extraordinaire, whose talent is said to have occult origins: “It wasn’t natural how good he could play, frenzying from chord to chord, note to note.”
Each one burns with enough mystery and darkness to fill another novel, and as they recede into the history of the flood and its aftermath, you wish you could follow them and find out more. They’re all at a Devil’s crossroads, forever on the run from a world determined to break, enslave, or drown them.
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, from Robert’s near-biblical flight through the countryside to the wildly eccentric characters he meets along the way.
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:
Without moonlight, he could not tell the foreground from the back. The night lay draped like a wet sheet around his face. Dark stretched for miles in every direction…. A lozenge of light hummed inches from his face, flaring then dying away. Now another. And another, this time farther out. Slowly he rose, easing his weight onto his good leg.
Lightning bugs filled the space like stars. They pulsed in time, floating up on one side, and drifting down the other, churning slow through the air like a waterwheel. Carefully, he followed their yellow-green burn through the ether, feeling out the space in front of him.
Cheng has said he wanted to pay tribute to the blues with his novel. He’s done that and more, by celebrating the Flood’s human face: men and women made homeless, whose loved ones perished, who languished in refugee camps, whose forced labor rebuilt the levees, and who cleared the swamps and survived to tell the tale if madness didn’t take them first. He’s sung their world into life and wrapped it up in a haunting, magical devil’s bag of a book that echoes long after you finish the last word.
A version of this review ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 9, 2013.