I brought up Bill Cheng in a previous post, and I just finished reading his novel Southern Cross the Dog. Cheng, despite growing up as an Asian American in Queens and never having visited the South, wrote a novel about an African American man living during the early twentieth century in the Deep South. As I mentioned earlier, Cheng has been praised for his mastery of the language, even while the book got a less than perfect review from the NY Times.
I thought this book was good. While the plot was often predictable and his choice of images sometimes trite (such as the Robert Johnson theme that the Times review criticizes), I thought Cheng’s mastery of the language made up for it. Cheng adopts a voice that he learned from the blues, and it works. While I too haven’t spent time in the Deep South, it seemed to me that Cheng’s wording and dialogue take on a powerful rhythm and movement that bring his characters to life. Cheng’s affinity for his African American characters comes out clearly in his prose. He clearly transcended the autobiographical novel.
Anyway, check out this book. I think Bill Cheng’s writing lives up to its reputation. His writing style is inventive and original.
Some minor spoilers ahead, so stop here if you’re going to be reading:
I’m wondering what African Americans from the South think about this book. Most of the white characters were stereotypes, and I don’t think it pushes the racial dialogue along the common path that most activists choose, but it was interesting how Cheng conceptualizes and focuses on the main character Robert Chatham. In many ways, the character lives outside of race, focused instead on survival and understanding the world. I’m curious as to whether African Americans find that helpful. Or not helpful. I thought it was funny that just about all the white people in this book were stereotypes (they’re all minor characters anyway), but they were black stereotypes of white people, not Asian stereotypes of white people. Instead of Charisma Man saviors or virile studs that lots of Asian people associate with whiteness, all the white people in this book were rapacious white men lusting after black women, backward hicks, slaveowner mentality leeches, or white women easy and eager to get a taste of black sex.