Iris Murdoch once wrote that you know almost immediately when you pick up a wonderful book. There’s an ineffable magic that swims through the first dozen or so pages. And after that initial sensation has sunk in, you can begin to worry about whether the author will be able to keep the magic going.
There’s no doubt that Bill Cheng set out to write a great book, an important book. He conjures up the American South with what — if I read correctly — is a deliberate homage to William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” which opens with an innocent white girl climbing a tree, showing a glimpse of her frilly bloomers. “Southern Cross the Dog” opens in much the same way, except this time it’s a bunch of tattered black kids playing “Little Sally Water,” in which a little girl, Dora, crouches down, wags her butt in the air, shows her bloomers and, by this method, picks a boy to kiss. Her inadvertent choice is Robert, a timid, sensitive boy who’s already been through more misfortune than anyone should have to live through. She kisses him and gives him a stone, which he’ll keep.
Flash-forward to a 1927 flood of biblical proportions. Robert’s family and all their Mississippi town become refugees and then are dragooned by the government to build another levee. The air, the plants, the ground, the moon itself have all been corrupted. People are starving and diseased. Nothing seems to grow; the universe has turned rotten.
When the story shifts again, we meet Eli, a genius musician. He spends his days in slavish work reconstructing the levee, but on Saturday nights he gives himself over to the music and amuses himself concocting home remedies — mostly for desperate women who find themselves pregnant. This is the 20th century, but the South is still so mired in the past that an ex-overseer who wields a huge bullwhip is in charge of the refugees. When the man’s beautiful 16-year-old sister goes to Eli for help, he knows it’s a bad idea: “I don’t lay tricks for your kind,” he tells her. “White folks, I mean. It’s not something that’s done.” Of course, he’s right. The whole world seems to disapprove. “The moon hung above the river, blighted and bad and full. A sightless eye.”
Fire. Flood. Rape. Lynching. Prison. Just when you think things can’t get worse, they do. A government with a bad sense of humor calls for “A Shining New South” in 1941, but the mosquitoes keep having their endless jamboree, and nobody’s heard of running water or electricity.
About this time, it occurs to the reader that life for the blacks is like life for the whites, only a hundred times worse. If you’re lucky, you may get a few moments of joy in your adolescence. You play some childhood games, exchange your first kiss, fall prey to the altogether erroneous notion that something important is going to happen. You may even, for a moment or two, entertain the thought that “no one has to suffer.” And then your kid gets meningitis. Or a truck runs over your mother. Or you lose your house, your spouse, your lover, your reason for being. And one day it’s hard to open your eyes in the morning, let alone get out of bed. And that’s when you make your bargains with life.
It’s a warning that Bill Cheng articulates all too well in his powerful debut: The best you can hope for in this encounter with life is a draw.
See regularly reviews books for The Washington Post.
SOUTHERN CROSS THE DOG
By Bill Cheng
HarperCollins. 324 pp. $25.99