I received Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog a few years ago, during a summer that sat neatly between my graduation from the University of Kentucky and the beginning of a new life in the roughly marked outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee. The book was one of several given to me by the wonderful writing staff of The Twenty, a weeklong writer’s commune that taught me more about my own writing shortcomings and talents than any other writing opportunity that has been afforded to me before or since.
Because the majority of my time during that week was spent writing my own words, I packed Southern Cross and nearly every other book that had been gifted to me into my backpack, their jackets pristine . Since then, it has rested on three different bookshelves in as many cities in as many years, gathering dust and illuminating those beautiful bulbs of memory every time my eyes wandered across the red script shining along the length of its spine.
When setting out to tackle the 52 in 52 challenge, I knew that in order to be even remotely successful that I would have to make the process a little simpler for myself. Although I am an avid reader, I am frustratingly stubborn when it comes to books. If there is a lull in plot progression, style, or development, I drag my feet. It’s hard to force yourself to read what loses your attention. I was afraid that at some point in the process I would get bored of the selection chosen by the general Reddit community, or I would simply not engage in the act of driving across town to the library to retrieve said book, or I would deem myself ‘too busy’ with the compiled minutia of a host of other hobbies, or…
The task at hand was already daunting enough, so I customized it. My plan of attack was to gather up as many unread books on my bookcase–twenty-two, to be exact–so that the excuses I provide for myself would seem petty if I dared bring them up to myself. After adding another thirty books to round out my personalized list, I numbered each book and utilized a random number generator to help pick the order of what I would read and when. I then compiled my data into a handy little excel table, seen below, because data is beautiful.
In addition to the challenge of reading each book, I also set out to gather some of my literary analysis chops back from the post-Academia void of adulthood by critically examining each work in five main areas: plot, characters/character development, style/language, thematic exploration, and overall challenge present to the reader. By looking for these areas as I read, I figured that I would glean a better understanding of writing and crafting engaging stories. In the end, I told myself, this challenge was an investment in my own writing.
So with my plan polished and my path set, I sunk my teeth into Bill Cheng’s debut novel.
From the vague blurb on the inside of the jacket, I assumed that the majority of Southern Cross the Dog would follow a fairly common coming-of-age narrative in the aftermath of the Great Flood of 1927. I assumed that, like similar stories, there would be a definite beginning, middle, and end of the story of Robert Chatham. That things would resolve nicely and come to a satisfactory end regardless of whether or not the ending in question was a happy or tragic one for the characters. Instead, I felt that the story was a little scattered overall, fragmented here and there in a way that was more distracting and confusing to me than satisfactory.
Since I’m focusing on the plot in and of itself in this section, I can’t harp too much on Cheng. The story had a logical beginning, middle, and end, even if those points of the story didn’t necessarily follow a traditional format. Through the lens of Robert, the reader is taken through the general turmoil and ill-luck of a post-flood, depression-era South, a journey that expands and contracts its focus and general reach so that each character, each vignette can be seen as a puzzle piece. For instance, the way that Cheng layers on aspects of Robert’s story provides a greater understanding and appreciation for the conflicts that he has to navigate through. Specifically, adding the portion of the book narrated by Ellis, his father, gives us insight into why he was separated from his parents and a look into the life he could have ended up with had he stayed with them.
Cheng employs this technique a few other times throughout the novel. He knows how to tell one person’s story by showing us multiple angles and viewpoints. I thought this was a great tactic, given the Southern setting. As a Kentucky boy, I know how important the story-telling tradition is and how easy it is to start stretching the edges of truth in order to garner a better reaction from the audience. Instead of letting Robert tell us things as he wants us to see them, Cheng provides context through the thoughts and interactions of other characters.
After finishing the novel, I assume the intent of having the narrative switch between various characters and time periods was to give more depth and relevance to the story and historical period as a whole instead of simply focusing on one person’s experience through it. In this way, I believe it was mostly effective, as Cheng was able to demonstrate the ramifications and general bleakness of the post-flood Mississippi terrain through the internal dialogue of a slew of different characters. While reading, however, I couldn’t help my thoughts straying to an alternate telling of the story where it was presented in a more or less chronological order and through the lens of Robert only. I can genuinely say that I’m not sure if this would make the plot easier to move through, but it was a continual curiosity.
Regardless, I never really found myself questioning the arc of the story. There were little to no plot holes that I could think of and only a few times when I was disappointed with the twists and turns the novel took. Regardless of my skepticism, Cheng made the plot work for him through the various devices he employed.
To say some of the characters in this novel were unlikable would be an understatement.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in fiction, as deplorable characters are often a sign that the author has made an impact on the reader through their careful crafting of a less than pleasant personality. Sadly, this was not the case for the most grating characters in Southern Cross.
Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t the case for everyone. Several of the POV characters were fresh, offering a new perspective on the world in which they found themselves, progressing the story as well as the reader’s understanding of the emotional wasteland that had crashed down upon each character and how they were each swallowed up by their new realities. In particular, I found that the POV of Robert’s father and of Dora were interesting and provided critical information to the reader. Others, like Eli, Frankie, and a slew of other, non-essential characters, served only to slow my pace and distract me from the plot. With these characters, I found myself taken out of the story; I focused more on my dislike of them than on what function they served in the grand scheme of things.
What’s more, I found most of the characters to be two-dimensional, mere façades of real people. There was very little complexity to be found throughout the cast. Most characters fell into one of two categories: pure evil/devilry or pure innocence. Often, these categories could be read as “men” or “women,” respectively. Eli, Mr. Duke, Roan, the barman, both men on rafts after the initial flood [seriously, there’s two of them…either that, or it’s supposed to be the same character, which seems unlikely and could have been a little more apparent, if so] and a slew of other masculine characters were painted in a wholly negative light. On the flipside, the female characters were fragile, prone to insanity (some with good reason, admittedly), mere objects to be enacted upon by the vaguely dubious men.
These two categories served to create a black and white effect when considering the motivations of each character. In fiction, however, I crave the gray area. I want to read the story of the hero committing the occasional atrocity that stands outside their code of ethics or the villain that has a softer side behind closed doors. This gray area, this Venn diagram of motivation, adds humanity to a character; it allows the reader an opportunity to imagine what they would do if placed in their shoes. Unfortunately, too many of the characters in this novel suffered from a two-dimensional existence for me to connect with them. Again, my issues with these characters rise not from their nature or what their personality traits were, but simply from how they were crafted. I didn’t want to be told to dislike or distrust Eli, I wanted there to be some qualities about him that would explain his charm over the cast of characters other than a talent for playing piano and an insatiable sex drive. I wanted to understand why Etta and Dora going mad in their later years was so heartbreaking, not simply be told that it was tragic because Robert and his father were sad.
Again, my issues with these characters rise not from their nature or what their personality traits were, but simply from how they were crafted. I didn’t want to be told to dislike or distrust Eli, I wanted there to be some qualities about him that would explain his charm over the cast of characters other than a talent for playing piano and an insatiable sex drive. I wanted to understand why Etta and Dora going mad in their later years was so heartbreaking, not simply be told that it was sad because Robert and his father were sad. I think that I paid so much attention to these shortcomings because the author was so close to hitting the nail on the head. For someone who has very little in common with the characters, time period, and location as Cheng, he painted a mostly rich character study. However, whether it be from lack of focus or from the aforementioned lack of knowledge of the event he was writing about, the characters flopped off the page with the flair of a fish out of water.
As a final point, I thought that the story was interesting in its practice of making evil one of the main characters. Whether referred to as the Devil (note the capitalization throughout), bad luck, or simply as evil, Robert’s world would be much different without the unwavering presence of chaotic negativity. There’s even the scene in which Eli extracts Robert’s jinx and places him in a magic mojo bag after he falls (or jumps? it’s left vague), telling him:
“Don’t ever take your devil out, because he might not let you put him back in. Don’t lose it, don’t show it to nobody, and don’t you lay around with it. This is your devil, see. You’re tied to it, and it’s tied to you.” [Southern Cross the Dog, p. 94]
Afterward, Robert literally carries his demons with him and he proceeds with the knowledge of a verified evil in his bones. While these choices sometimes felt like overkill to me, I appreciated the physicality of the forces of evil as a whole. The only thing I would have liked to see a little more of was a rejection of these folklore inspired thoughts from some of the other characters. Balancing the vast amount of people who believed that evil was lurking around every corner waiting for a moment to strike with others who found those thoughts to be hogwash would have only served to strengthen the challenge Cheng presented his readers with.
Towards the beginning of the novel, the shift of characters left me a little clueless as to who the main character of the novel was supposed to be. In my attempt to pinpoint, I had a thought that evil as the main antagonist would be an interesting way to explore the story, and I wonder what the novel would have been like if Cheng had personified Evil like Zusak’s Death in The Book Thief, giving it a voice and feelings and thoughts that the reader plainly had access to. Regardless, I appreciated the subtlety of Cheng’s characterization of Evil; it was perhaps the most present and nuanced character he crafted in the entire novel.
In his debut novel, Bill Cheng demonstrates a practiced command of the English language through his polished style and carefully selected diction.
Stylistically, there was a lot going on that I enjoyed. Cheng knows how to keep the flow of the reader’s eye on the page going by interspersing the long and the short, evident in both sentence and paragraph length. As it sits on the page there is a certain topography gifted to the novel through the use of his short, one-line paragraphs with several instances of these bite-sized ideas lining up neatly in a row. This makes it simple to separate ideas and also adds a certain dimension of time to the plot. The longest passages were provided by the narrative to help world-build, describe physical characteristics of people, animals, and plants, and to fill in the silence between conversations with the internal dialogue of the POV characters. The shorter sentences and paragraphs were usually reserved for dialogue and descriptions of quicker actions. Cheng uses these differences in length to flavor the writing, sprinkling a dash of observant meditation with the bright spice of short quips from the cast.
Additionally, I enjoyed the lack of quotation marks in the novel. I’ve seen other authors employ this tactic to little effect–personally, I usually dislike this stylistic choice because of the many times I’ve been confused by the flow of the omniscience of the POV and the dialogue of the characters. Cheng, however, never gave me the opportunity to get lost by properly transitioning the two sources of information through the careful use of language that makes it obvious to the reader the division between narration and discourse.
Out of all the areas that I’m examining in this review, Cheng’s control of the language in Southern Cross was perhaps the most expertly used and displayed. As someone who reads and writes a good amount of poetry, I have come to understand that the aspect of the poetic genre that draws a reader in so intensely is a combination of brevity and beauty in the language. Using only the words necessary to paint the picture is what makes the writing jump off the page, and when this economy of words is used to tackle “ugly” topics like childbirth, death, illness, and abuse, something truly magical happens. A dichotomy of what is expected and what is given is driven like a wedge into the reader’s mind, forcing them to think in a new way about even the most profane of topics.
Cheng flexes this specific set of writing chops very well in his novel. A favorite tactic employed throughout the novel is anthropomorphism and the reversion of trope diction. Like the Southerners he writes about, there is an exaggeration that is ever-present in his storytelling, an unspoken desire to make the story shine a little more brightly by injecting a healthy dose of magic to the mundane. There are several instances: bees buzz drunkenly; wires wink in the dim light of a flashlight; branches chatter in the heart of the marshy wasteland, an ever-present force observing our characters from the shadowy veil of its own depth. By allowing all these different inanimate objects to pick themselves up and enact a will of their own, Cheng steadily reinforces the livelihood of the bad luck/Devil that appears continually throughout the novel and makes it easier for the reader to imagine a world in which magic and folklore are a lot closer to reality than we’d be willing to believe otherwise.
The only thing I was left wanting in the area of diction was a more intelligent dialogue between characters. Cheng reserves his best ideas and most stunning sentences for himself, leaving the characters to communicate through grunts, body language, and overly transparent thoughts. I didn’t want these characters to wax poetic like some Shakespearean tragic hero, per se, because doing so wouldn’t fit within the context of the location and time that was being written about. However, I did feel that Cheng could have given the characters a little more profundity in a way that would have felt genuine in its own right. Even though most of the characters had not found their way through an educational system, they were still wizened by the breadth of their experiences and could have provided a sort of ‘Southern wisdom’ that challenges our own notions of what it means to be intelligent. That’s mostly me being nitpicky, though.
Undoubtedly, the most present theme in this novel is the binary presence of coincidence vs. fate. The Prologue kicks off the story with Robert providing a brief overview of the story to come:
“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.” [Southern Cross the Dog, p.1]
From the very get-go, Cheng is tipping us off the fact that there is a physicality to the vaguely dubbed “jinx” that plays against our idea of such bad luck as something mystical and vague, a spell enacted upon someone in a world of make-believe. Ill fortune is set up from the beginning as something that lives and breathes and wreaks havoc on the unsuspecting Robert continues by listing all the sources of the jinx that he can remember; he does so through a recollection of ways it made itself present in the members of his family as if this curse was a hereditary trait he’s received against his will. By presenting this idea from the main character, Cheng challenges the reader to question whether the recurrence of bad luck is simply coincidental or a destiny penned in the tightly sealed pages of Fate.
Using this rhetoric helps give an air of Blues music lyricism to the way the story is told, a purposeful choice from the author as made apparent in the last paragraph of the Acknowledgements. In this way, the blues becomes its own theme that stands firmly on its own outside of the realm of music. Throughout the novel, there are several times its main characters succumb to the overwhelming pressure of living in a flood-ravaged and low-income existence. Some go mad, losing their sanity in the wake of their grim reality; others exert their frustrations at having so little control over their own path that they lie and kill and fuck their way into a momentarily blissful ignorance and general apathy.
This, of course, ties back neatly into the aforementioned theme of Fate. Countless times we see the younger Robert trying to reject the presence of the evil forces in his life by simply fleeing, changing scenery and hoping that the bad luck won’t follow. He is actively trying to do better for himself and trying to escape an existence he isn’t willing to accept so easily. By the end of the novel, though, Robert has fully subscribed to his belief in the forces of nature beyond his control, becoming another agent of the superstitions and folklore that he raised on and thus fulfilling the cycle of the jinx and carrying it into a new generation.
Challenge to Reader: 2/4
For all intents and purposes, this was not an incredibly difficult novel to read. The length, clarity, and subject matter can all be easily tackled by young adults. Keeping up with all of the characters could be tough at times, especially for Eli and Ellis, whose similar names made it hard to remember which character did what. Other than that, though, the novel does its best to wear its heart on its sleeve, leaving little unsaid and only the simplest things hidden between the lines.
Jumping between years/ages was a great idea in theory and has been used to great effect in other novels (see, for example, Don DeLillo’s Underworld). Showing the growth of Robert, Dora, G.D., and even Eli throughout the years helped me understand more about their individual natures, how they coped with their post-flood realities, and what made them tick in some of the most intensely personal ways.
However, I think that the division of time periods could have been handled a little better. For example, after making it through what seemed to be all of the 1920’s and then skipping ahead to 1941, when Robert is a grown man and closer to his eventual fate, Cheng rewinds the tapes and switches the focus to his father. Again, in theory, this is a wonderful way to provide insight into a very important character that got almost no page time in comparison to other characters. After realizing that Ellis would be the POV for the aforementioned chapter, I was excited to learn more about the moments directly following the flood. I wanted to learn how Robert was separated and sent to work in a whorehouse, I wanted to know what, pray tell, could be a worse fate for a child than this? And I didn’t feel like I got a satisfactory enough answer.
I think where Cheng went wrong with this lies within the choice to disrupt the flow of the story, specifically the two sections that bookend the thirty or so pages that Robert’s father is given. Overall, I felt that I wasn’t invested in the characters enough to truly care about the backstory that he was laying out in the overall narrative. I just didn’t see the payoff of jumping back and forth in this instance and think that a more chronological timeline would have been a better choice. I wanted it all to be a little more direct–while my schedule is equally to blame, I’d say the biggest reason I got behind my scheduled completion date was because I had to force myself through the last 50-60 pages. For me, this is a big sign that the novel was one that simply didn’t kindle the spark of excitement that a reader should get from good fiction.
While the concepts covered and language employed wasn’t necessarily difficult, I did find this splicing of time and the broad range of POV characters to be a challenge to my own reading. Perhaps by scaling back the extensive list of characters to the most important interactions and by exploring a different timeline the gears of Cheng’s writing would turn a little smoother. As is, though, it gets clogged by its own ambition, lost in a quest to tell a great story of such broad scope without having consistently quality content to fully fill it.
As I type this, I’m realizing that most of my issues with this novel stem from the fact that expectations and reality diverged more and more as the story progressed. Because Cheng is a talented writer and has a mastery of the basics, I kept assuming that there would some profound turn in the narrative. Instead, he allowed the story to fizzle out by hanging his hat on the merits of his poetic language without truly pushing the boundaries of the plot. Perhaps that’s more on me than Cheng, but with a style so promising I just didn’t feel like he did himself–or his characters–justice.
Overall, I thought that Bill Cheng’s Southern Cross the Dog was an interesting concept and that his command of his writing and language proved that he has a great grip on writing as a whole. I appreciated the perspectives presented because they provided me a look into the past and a connection to an event I would have otherwise never learned about or researched on my own. The writing was strong and fluid enough for me to get through it within the deadline of the week.
If you’re looking for a story to connect you to the Southern storytelling tradition, this is a great introduction. If you’ve read this and are looking for more I would gladly recommend Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Both are written by gentlemen that came from the South and written with an authority that will help develop your understanding of the oft-stereotyped Southern American states through their rich characters, writing, and plots.