New Yorker's quintessential Southern novel has literati agog

The New York TimesMay 10, 2013 

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, 29, a 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, owner of Square Books in Oxford, Miss., and an 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 last week by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, is the story of Robert Chatham, a young black 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 and who was born and raised in Queens and now lives in Brooklyn, said in an interview that he drew from his deep knowledge of the blues to write the novel, but he is 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 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.

The real test came when Halpern began showing the book to people including Howorth and Edward P. Jones, a black writer whose accolades include a Pulitzer Prize.

Jones so admired the book that he supplied a crucial blurb for the back cover. Howorth said he loved the book and pledged his full support.

Cheng is about to find out how his book will be received by the public. He is starting a tour that includes a few of the South's most respected bookstores, including Square Books in Oxford and Lemuria Books in Jackson, Miss. A question-and- answer session is planned May 22 at Parnassus Books in Nashville, the store that novelist Ann Patchett opened in 2011. That will be Cheng's closest announced appearance to Lexington. At the end of May, he will appear at the Decatur Arts Festival in Georgia.

Lisa Newman, a bookseller at Lemuria, said Tuesday that she was midway through the novel and was questioning how Cheng could have captured the people and the dialects so accurately.

As Cheng tells it, he never imagined the novel would make it to publication. He began writing it while studying for his master's degree in fine arts at Hunter.

He decided the story should take place in Mississippi because it was the birthplace of the blues, but he didn't set out to write an explicitly blues novel.

"I just looked for the things that show up a lot in the music, images and icons that are prominent in music — the flood, the Devil, the hellhouse," he said. "The story formed itself around that."

Mary Grey James, a manager at Parnassus and an avid reader of Southern fiction, said she thought Cheng had "transcended" his own background to write the book.

"Not knowing anything about him, I would have sworn it was written by someone from the South," James said. "It's the way a lot of African-American Southerners experienced life back in the '20s, '30s and early '40s. He must have done a ton of research or has read a lot of Faulkner."

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