Wednesday, June 18, 2014

What Did the Book Club Think of Bill Cheng's "Southern Cross the Dog"?

I'm going through a Queens nostalgia mood. Part of it is of course gearing up for Jonathan Lethem's Dissident Gardens event (June 30), but it's not only that. I was writing proposals for author events, and noticed that Matt Burgess, whose novels Dogfight and the forthcoming Uncle Janice, are set in that fair county, is now teaching at Macalester College in St. Paul, putting him in remote traveling distance to Milwaukee.

And then there is Bill Cheng, the Queens writer who channeled Mississippi in his first novel, Southern Cross the Dog. Is that celebrating Queens or not? Are there even blues bars in Queens? I went through Yelp and even though several restaurants came up on the list, I'm not sure why they were there as none of the reviews mentioned blues music at all. So he probably went to Manhattan for his inspiration, but hey, he went to Hunter College and like anyone from the western half of Queens, he knows how to use a train. (Note: for folks on the east side of the borough, where there's only bus and some railroad connections to the subways, you'll find a lot more car dependent residents).

The story opens with the Chatham family, preparing for a storm. Young Robert shares his first kiss with Dora. This is not just any storm, but the Great Flood of 1927. The title refers to the crossing of two rail lines, and like the rails, the characters find themselves wandering through the old south, with Robert working a brothel, a construction crew, and joining up with a group of Cajun trappers, where I think he was a prisoner.

Oh, I'll let Paul Yamazaki of City Lights in San Francisco tell you what he thinks. "Southern Cross the Dog by Bill Cheng heralds the emergence of a major new literary talent. A compelling and gripping read, it will garner the enthusiasm of independent booksellers – with whom I’ll be talking up this book for the next several months – around the country. One of the pleasures and privileges of being a bookseller is to be an advocate for the first novel an emerging author of immense talent. Bill Cheng is that author, Southern Cross the Dog is that novel." I admire this rec because I sometimes get hung up on the details of a novel and Paul doesn't bother with that. I have to say that he doesn't need to; if Paul is advocating for a book, it goes on my to-be-read list, no question.

Let's try Edward P. Jones. What did he think? "'Bill Cheng offers a grand and precious novel that splendidly extends our appreciation for an endlessly complex place in our American world, a place of colorful and unforgettable characters and landscapes both threatening and inviting. His work is lush and often poetic (“thunder rolled and stitch by stitch, he could feel the sky unravel”). Southern Cross the Dog has large and small echoes of masterful works, but we should not make any mistake—Cheng has carved out his own creative and accomplished path. His novel is a welcome and necessary addition to a society where good and compelling writing and stories are not as easy to find as some may think."

Why do I worry about plot? Nobody else does. But I got a little bogged down in the story. So I turn to the folks in our In-Store Lit Group, at closer to full attendance after the confusion of when exactly was our discussion of The Interestings. That did lead me to finally create an email distribution list for regulars, so I hope not to repeat that problem.

In advance of the talk, the first person I spoke to was N1 I was surprised, as she was enjoying it. What would she say at the discussion. Would she be influenced by other readers?

S reminded us that it was a mood book more than anything, capturing the poverty of the Delta region. This is where blues came from and blues are what inspired Bill Cheng. In particular, Robert Johnson's Hellhound on my Trail has come up as a direct inspiration. S was also reminded of The Confessions of Nat Turner.

R has heard the blues live many times and would have liked a soundtrack. One of the things that he noticed was that though the book was said to be inspired by the blues, there was very little music in the book. Later on, another attendee called Southern Cross the Dog the most unmusical music novel she'd read.

R noted that the convict labor system, which comes up in the story, was quite common. A steel company would come in and hire prisoners to work at almost nonexistent wages.

L1 felt challenged, but she liked it, at least sometimes. L2 didn't love it, but it felt real. C said she got lost in the marsh. There was a lot of time-shifting and too many characters for her to keep track of. J1 enjoyed it more the second time through, a thought that was seconded by another attendee, G. "I enjoyed the structure more and I realized that Dora at the end of the story was the same character whom Robert kissed at the tale's beginning."

J2 loved the language of the story, and C, who is touch and go on our selections, wound up enjoying it a lot. She loved the imagery of the railroads crossing but not meeting, much like many of the characters in the book.

Back to the structure. We wondered if this novel was built on tops of stories that were then connected. It's so hard to get stories published by a major house, and the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) chapter in particular, felt pretty ancillary to the plot. As an aside, one of our attendees noted that this particular project is still not finished.

J3 noted that the women in the story are all damaged, though another attendee countered that the men are not much better. Dora, Hermelie, Miss Lucy, Miss almost felt like the prostitutes were in the best shape. N2 noted this as well and was troubled by it. Why are they all killed off or rendered silent and/or crazy?

Stylistically we had some issues with he decision to not use quotation marks. S noted that this was a practice of Cormac McCarthy. We also noticed that Cheng has gotten a lot of comparisons to Cormac McCarthy, but is that because if this style-based decision rather than the book itself? Hard to say.

Inspiration? We'd already discussed Robert Johnson's Hellhound on my Trail and William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner. So then someone mentioned Claire Huchet Bishop's The Five Chinese Brothers. How did we make that comparison? It was interesting that it came up, even if I don't see it, as it's a once-popular book that isn't much carried now, not necessarily because it's racist (the brothers are heroes and are nothing but heroic) but because of the cultural appropriation.

But of course Southern Cross the Dog is pretty much a work of cultural appropriation, no less than William Styron's Confessions of Nat Turner.  But the other side of appropriation is imagination, which is what N2 wrote to me about when she expressed her disappointment that she could not attend. (Editor's note: if all attendees could write their thoughts down, my life would be much easier).

"What he created is a simulacrum in the sense of Boudrillard: the exact replica of something that doesn't exist. This idea is both exciting and unnerving. Chen knows his Faulkner, though. Parts of this seem to be based on The Bear, in particular... Robert is an interesting, often compelling, picaro. One reviewer described his journey as an odyssey, and I thought that maybe Chen was using Homer. There's a sort of Telemachiad in the beginning, and the Hotel Beau-Miel might correspond to Sirens, and Dora could be Penelope. I gave up on this after a while, though, because I don't know Homer well enough. It's an odyssey of the imagination, and that's engaging.

N2 read the reviews and thought Dwight Garner in The New York Times didn't get it. He seemed to see the simulacrum as mimicry. She thought Jane Smiley in the (UK) Guardian had a better handle on the story and what Cheng was trying to do.

If your book club demands a strong plotline, you might have some trouble with the book. But if language and structure and inspiration are to your liking, and you're looking for an excuse to play some blues music at your next gathering, Southern Cross the Dog should offer you an inspiring evening. For a little more background, Julie Bosman profiles Bill Cheng in The New York Times here. And here's his interview on NPR.

Next up, we discuss Dara Horn's A Guide for the Perplexed on Monday, July 7, 7 pm.

On August 4, 7 pm, we dissect Hannah Kent's Burial Rites. We're hosting Deborah Harkness at Boswell that night, so the discussion may be moved to the Starbucks next door.

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