BOOK REVIEW: Outsider's novel gets the South right



    by Bill Cheng; Ecco ($25.99)

From its opening pages, "Southern Cross the Dog" has all the markers of a novel written in the finest Southern gothic tradition. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 sweeps in, taking a few unlucky characters with it. There are references aplenty to race, poverty, the blues, voodoo and an ill-fated brothel.

It is no wonder the Southern literati have raised an eyebrow at its author: Bill Cheng, a 29-year-old Chinese-American from New York who has never set foot in Mississippi.

"I was highly suspicious of this book when I first started it," said Richard Howorth, the owner of Square Books in Oxford, Miss., and a revered authority on Southern literature. "I was won over."

So much for the conventional wisdom about fiction masquerading as autobiography.

"Southern Cross the Dog," a debut novel released this week by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, is the story of Robert Chatham, a young African-American man who, displaced by the flood, sets off on an odyssey that over years takes him through the wilds of Mississippi, meeting fur traders, prostitutes, Klansmen and grifters.

Its intense prose and Southern darkness have drawn comparisons to work by Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy; in a starred review, the website Booklist said Cheng's "rhapsodic language is so imaginative and highly charged that each word seems newly forged."

Cheng, a son of Chinese immigrants who was born and raised in Queens and now lives in Brooklyn, said in an interview this week that, while he drew from his deep knowledge of the blues to write the novel, he is still bracing for criticism that he has somehow gotten the South wrong.

"I don't have the advantage of being from there, from that region, of that race," Cheng said. "It's tough. But my responsibility is to tell stories, to tell the story I want to tell in the way I want to tell it. And if there are repercussions from that, I'll just have to face it."

"Southern Cross the Dog" made its way to publication by being passed from the hands of one influential publishing figure to another. Nathan Englander, one of Cheng's writing instructors at Hunter College, gave the first 70 pages to Nicole Aragi, a literary agent who is known for her unerring taste in literary fiction. Aragi took on Cheng as a client and sent the manuscript to Daniel Halpern, the publisher of Ecco, who said he had read it quickly because Aragi was the sender.

Mary Grey James, a manager at Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., said she believed that Cheng had "transcended" his own background.

"Not knowing anything about him, I would have sworn it was written by someone from the South," James said. "... He must have done a ton of research or has read a lot of Faulkner."

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