"The past is never dead," William Faulkner wrote in his 1950 novel-play "Requiem for a Nun." "It's not even past."
That line has become the stuff of know-your-history benisons. But Faulkner's intentions were always a bit darker than that: As John Jeremiah Sullivan recently wrote, the driving force of Faulkner's fiction was "the nightmare of the Southern past." Bill Cheng understands this, how history is as much something that gets done to you as something that's been done. Toward the end of his remarkable debut novel, Southern Cross the Dog, a bluesman-prisoner-preacher-mystic named Eli Cutter explains what life in Mississippi has taught him: "This is one thing I've learned. 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."
It'll do little good to linger too long over correspondences between Faulkner and Cheng, a recently minted MFA who'll inevitably look weaker for the comparison.
But "Southern Cross the Dog" is a book of many marvels, not least of which is Cheng's ability to craft a host of southern voices and sensibilities without effortful, stiff ventriloquism. His story centers on the fate of a young man named Robert Lee Chatham after the Mississippi Flood of 1927 – which, yes, Faulkner depicted in his novella "Old Man." And yes, some familiar archetypes abound: Federal interlopers, Creole trappers, black musicians and white exploiters, brothel owners and preachers.
Yet through Robert, Cheng has imagined a story about survival and spirit that's distinct from Faulkner's rhetoric or Flannery O'Connor's eccentric characters. The past isn't past here either, but Cheng's version of the non-past feels rich and new.
We meet Robert as an eight-year-old, just before the flood, which Cheng describes in a voice that is at once graceful, biblical, and deeply local: "Telegraph poles had collapsed together in a nest of crucifixions, their cables willowing into the dark water." After Robert is delivered into the hands of the brothel owner for whom he works odd jobs, his life intersects with those of Eli Cutter and Augustus Duke, the musician's white would-be manager.
With each new character, Cheng calibrates a slight tonal shift: Augustus' drunken patrician demeanor has an aura of doom about it, while Eli's mood is one of weariness and fear. For good reason. Eli was a "root man" who wound up in prison for accidentally poisoning a white woman looking to abort a pregnancy, and Cheng relates this passage in his life in a virtuoso set piece that reads like folklore: approving, strange, and thickened by offbeat plant names: johnsongrass, devil's shoestrings, chase-devil, boneset, grooveburr, birthwort, cohosh root.
Eli wears a "devil" around his neck, a flannel bag of organic matter meant to ward off evil spirits. By 1932, Robert acquires one, too, the most potent symbol in the novel of the bind that he's in as a poor black man in the Deep South, at once eager for liberation and unable to shake the feeling of being stalked by a past that left his parents homeless and his brother lynched. The "Dog" of the title lives entirely in his imagination: "a large black hound – lean and sleek – that looked out at him with deep piercing eyes from which no light could escape." But the motivating fear it represents is real enough.
Plotwise, "Southern Cross the Dog" has the shape of an adventure tale: It tracks Robert's escape from flood and fire, from the brothel to the wilderness where he falls in with a group of fur trappers to the bog where he joins federal workers reshaping the Mississippi swamp to make room for a dam. (Their invocations of a "new shining South" come off much more like a curse than a blessing.)
Robert's travels are an opportunity for Cheng to cross-section the South and explore its racial mix as well the tension between the longtime residents and the invading northerners. But more than getting the patois and the history right, Cheng gets the characters right. Robert's childhood friend Dora falls in with a grim salvager named Stuckey, and Cheng invokes his terror with a brushstroke: "Stuckey made a Stuckey shape in the doorway," a line that reveals a supreme confidence on the writer's part in the character he's created and what readers will project upon him.
And beyond getting the characters right, Cheng gets the emotions right. "Southern Cross the Dog" closes on a redemptive note but, appropriately, not a sunny one. Cheng has cannily imagined southern life – and all life – as a push and pull between what helps you survive and what pulls you under, where there's always "too much time to wrong and be wronged." Where the devil around your neck is your best hope to ward off the devil on your tail.