Literature is probably the last remaining art form where we seem to require EXPERIENTIAL authenticity on the part of its practitioners. Quentin Tarantino mashes up slave narratives with spaghetti westerns; Bob Dylan cuts and pastes blues lyrics and Civil War poetry and sings of “Mr. Jinx” and “Miss Lucy.” All to great critical acclaim. And yet, when a novelist comes along whose LIFE STORY stands at odds with those of his or her main characters, SUSPICIONS ARISE REGARDING THE WRITER’S AUTHORITY AND THE WORK’S WEIGHT.
Already a lot has been said about how Bill Cheng, a Queens-born, Chinese-American author in his late 20s, who has written “Southern Cross the Dog,’’ a rich, rollicking debut novel featuring black characters in the Deep South in the first half of the 20th century, even though Cheng reportedly had never visited Mississippi before writing his book. Instead, his novel was inspired, he notes in his acknowledgments, by such blues artists as Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Willie McTell, and Honeyboy Edwards . The influences of everyone from Mark Twain and William Faulkner to Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison seem also to be in evidence. In one case, the author even makes a glancing reference to “King Lear.’’
The result is a phantasmagorical excursion into a world populated by Cajun trappers, Works Progress Administration land developers, and exploitative music promoters. The landscape is one marked by bad moons, evil winds, backwater magic, and hoodoo curses; swamps where “everything crawled and curled and spidered, exploding from the ground in blades and fans and tendrils of poison green.”
Cheng’s is the sort of novel where words like “gunny sack,” “juke joint,” and “bugheway” make frequent appearances, and people actually say things like “Near everybody’s got a devil. Some folks got two or three,” and “Bad and trouble is set to follow you through this earth.” On one occasion, the author observes portentously: “Soon there would be a reckoning.”
To achieve the daunting task he has set before himself — that of writing the Great 20th Century Southern Novel while rooted firmly in the 21st century Northeast — Cheng must accomplish two things. First, he must convincingly capture the language of the period and his characters without veering into either parody or stereotype.
And, to his great credit, Cheng does conjure up voices that sound, for the most part, both original and authentic. His sentences are memorable and often poetic — a “mound of scat” is “jeweled with horseflies.” The deteriorating roof of an old grain silo is “freckled with sky.” Nearly every individual description is truly a pleasure to read. And if some of the spoken exchanges can occasionally become a bit too reminiscent of movie dialogue they nevertheless tend to be evocative and melodic. The reader can truly sense the passion the author feels for the art that has inspired him.
Cheng’s second, and significantly more challenging task, is to put those lovely sentences of his together in the service of a plot that is as compelling as the language he uses to describe it. Here, the author’s success is not as clear-cut.
Ostensibly, the novel is a sort of Southern Gothic picaresque, following the path of one Robert Lee Chatham. Robert survives the Great Flood of 1927; suffers the tragedy of his brother’s lynching; works at menial jobs for a brothel; later, in the early 1940s, he joins the WPA’s work force, helping to dynamite swampland, then finds himself essentially imprisoned by Cajun trappers before ultimately arriving at a bittersweet homecoming. Along the way, we also encounter the diabolically talented blues musician Eli Cutter, who has done time for manslaughter, and Augustus Duke, who springs him from prison.
But that plot description probably makes the novel seem more dramatic and compelling than it is. Though tension is certainly palpable at times, those scenes don’t build to the cumulative impact that they seem to promise. Moments of violence can read more like cinematic representations. Here, for example, is Cheng describing a gunshot: “There was flash and powder and the glass collapsed into nothing.” Lovely, to be sure, and you can see it — but it’s harder to actually feel.
It seems unfair to point out that a first novel as accomplished as Cheng’s can’t match the menace contained in, say, a Cormac McCarthy novel or the mythic beauty of Toni Morrison’s best work or the dramatic impact of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues” or Skip James’s “Devil Got My Woman,” but it’s nonetheless true. At times, one can spend so much time marveling at Cheng’s individual sentences that the plot almost evaporates, and so, too, the dramatic tension, creating a novel that winds up being a simulacrum of the works it emulates, consistently inspiring great admiration, if not always equally, great emotion.
Bill Cheng has proven WITHOUT a doubt here that he sure can play the blues, but he may have a little while to go before he can show he can truly sing it.
Adam Langer is the author of “Crossing California’’ and “The Thieves of Manhattan.’’ His fifth novel, “The Salinger Contract,’’ will be published in the fall.