A Chinese American Novel
Cheng, Bill. Southern Cross The Dog. New York: HarperCollins, 2013.
Bill Cheng’s first novel, constructed according to the best standards of creative writing programs, may be symbolic of one trend in the contemporary American novel: ethnic cross-examination. As an example of the trend, Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues (1995) is sterling. Alexie skillfully absorbs the legend of bluesman Robert Johnson into a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene narrative tradition and renders an omni-American story. Apparently that skill is not or cannot be taught in creative writing programs, because Cheng fails to use Chinese American sensibility in the making of a novel that is geographically accurate but spiritually pathetic. Cheng knows all the right place names in the State of Mississippi, the major matrix for the blues, but he is rather uninformed about African American spirituality and ceremonies of poise in an absurd universe. He seems to think blues is grounded in some weird, stereotypical version of hoo doo. Southern Cross The Dog is at once historically accurate in describing the affects of the Mississippi River flood of 1927 and hysterically gauche in narrating the biocultural dimensions of blues production. Cheng stumbles in the wilderness of modern American fiction, blind to what most Southern writers know by instinct. Wild women do not have the blues.
In seeking to write a deep study of the elements of the blues, especially the psychological elements, Cheng presents us with a faux Faulkner novel, one indebted more to the imaginations of Sherwood Anderson and Gertrude Stein than to the grounded imaginations of Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, and Sterling A. Brown. His American literary ancestors have taught him how to invest in the exotic, the grotesque and Gothic, the ultimately insulting. He has quite abandoned a general Chinese piety in the face of poverty and dehumanization.
In his tortured effort to become an “American” (a sentient cipher), Cheng creates a monstrous distortion of music and racial history in the South between 1927 and 1941. And only God knows what led him to drag degenerate Cajuns into the story. His training in creative writing should have taught him to deal with Cajuns as complex human beings not as beings devolving into abject animality as they practice love/hate upon the African American body. Perhaps the best that can be said of Southern Cross The Dog is that extremes of assimilation in fictive ethnic cross-examinations do not work. Despite the generous praise Cheng has received from Edward P. Jones and William Ferris for his mastery of prose ----calling a repaired harmonium a “box full of souls” is a brilliant metaphor for the Mississippi Delta, the novel does not justify Ravi Howard’s opinion that “Cheng conjures history with precision and style.” What Cheng manages to conjure is a hushpuppy for consumers bereft of discriminating tastes.