Southern Cross the Dog recounts the odyssey of young Robert Chatham, as first-time novelist Bill Cheng portrays the themes of racial tension, adolescent love, emotional hardships, and the destruction incurred by nature. As he travels throughout the South, Robert faces many trials and tribulations, all of which test his will to survive and mold his views of life and Southern society. Channeling William Faulkner in his use of dialects and depiction of Southern life, Cheng illustrates Robert’s physical passage throughout the South as he grapples with his mental struggle between the past and future.
As Cheng portrays the obstacles Robert faces in his trek throughout the Deep South, the 8-year-old protagonist faces the trauma of the Great Flood of 1927 amidst the social and economic trauma of the Depression. Also set in the Jim Crow era of heightened racial tensions and legal segregation, Southern Cross the Dog directly tackles these topics. However, the novel lacks true focus as Cheng waffles between a myriad of characters, places, and time periods. After the world around him collapses and is washed away, Robert journeys through Mississippi, a land Cheng himself had never experienced before authoring his Southern novel. During this devastating flood, “houses [bleed] out their insides” as people “[bubble] up swollen and drowned, rag-dolling in the current.” This Flood, an allegory stretching beyond that of Noah’s biblical tale, incurs this violent cleansing upon Robert, his family, and his community. The storm ravages both the physical town and the young protagonist’s youth; it is the brutal force of nature that shapes Robert’s journey and his sense of self throughout this epic novel.
Carrying this religious significance beyond the novel’s initial pages, Cheng also weaves major religious themes in the fabric of his story. Throughout the novel, the dog motif invokes the devil, and constantly haunts Robert throughout his journey. In the section entitled “Hotel Beau-Miel (1932),” Robert hears the “dog pace anxiously outside Percy’s Pharmacy.” Robert believes the dog’s barks “[sound] far away and haunting, calling out from the world’s end.” Here Cheng again invokes religious allegories, referencing the apocalypse. Cheng infuses the dog with this otherworldly, devilish nature. The dog seems to straddle these two worlds, looming over Robert’s physical senses and consciousness; Cheng similarly straddles the line between presenting a true southern novel and a southern parody. This magnified fear stems from stories he had heard about these animals. All of Cheng’s religious references seem to suggest the presence of sin and the need for humanity to be cleansed. Framed by his interactions with people on the fringes of society, such as the wily fur-trappers, Cheng’s depictions of these societal outskirts are meant to juxtapose with his many references to the heart of religious themes. The allegories serve to complicate the nature of the novel, yet also evoke this call for redemption for both Robert and the South. Part Four is even titled, “A Shining New South,” reverberating these mandates for redemption and salvation.
As Robert continues his journey, he makes his way through a whorehouse, treacherous swamp, and even the racial prejudice abounding in the Southern United States during the 20th century. Robert’s physical passage throughout Mississippi mirrors his navigation through this myriad of racial issues and the individuals he encounters. While African-Americans are no longer confined to the bonds of slavery, figurative chains remain in place, stunting the development and change of Southern society after the Civil War; Cheng fuses religion and racial tension to convey this commentary. Robert experiences various racial situations and individuals affected by these laws in his travels. In a flashback, Robert recounts his birthday the previous year. On this occasion, he wanders into a dirty, empty bar with this friendly sign: “coloreds welcome.” Here, a kind white man emerges from a trap door, offers him a seat at the counter, and gives him a sandwich on the house.
As evidenced in this scene, Cheng frequently jumps around in the chronology of his narrative, oftentimes oscillating between the past and present. Then he flashes forward in the narrative, highlighting Robert’s sexual encounter with the white bar owner’s mentally handicapped African-American daughter. This departure from cross-raced kindness to this fleeting sexual episode provides a new shade on race relations, evoking the sensibility of Tom Jones, Fielding’s eighteenth century picaresque novel. Molly Seagrim seduces Tom in the novel, just as the bar owner’s daughter ignites sexual relations between herself and Robert. In this novel of survival and racial strain, Robert even works as a slave laborer in the swamp, yet manages to escape. When he disappears, Robert is referred to as the “missing Negro,” and is filed “among the other transients of the country.” He emerges from the depth of the swamp “half dead and all the way alive” and into a zealous colored church service about the Devil. In this scene, Cheng cleverly unites race, religion, and the dog motif. Preaching to the congregation, the reverend roars “That low sniffling dog that howls at your back door! Hear him, brothers, hear! He calls for blood!” Startled by the sermon, Robert seeks Eli’s help, yet is rebuffed. While the book itself is fragmented into six sections and often jumps forward and backward in time, Robert’s sense of time is similarly fractured. Cheng writes “The one truth God has ever given to a man. And it’s that the past keeps happening to us. No matter who we are or how far we get away, it keeps happening to us.” Robert finally reaches where the “Southern cross the Dog,” two iconic railroads, which Cheng manipulates to depict the Southern world and society’s interactions with the Devil, a force Robert battles throughout his odyssey.
Uniting these themes as well as Robert’s fragmented sense of time and consciousness, Cheng attempts to present this coming of age novel, both concerning his young protagonist and the South. Unfortunately, Cheng’s attempts are just that; he shies away from a thorough presentation of plot and loses the reader in the overdone time oscillations, fragmentations, and frequent narrator shifts. While Southern Cross the Dog certainly possesses gleams of brilliance, Cheng’s debut novel falls short of becoming the iconic, successful novels of predecessors such as Faulkner and Twain. Each of the novel’s landscapes represents new territory for both Robert and Cheng, territory that Cheng endeavors to navigate, but through which he ultimately remains off-track.