Two assured debuts set in the South
Southern Cross the Dog
Bill Cheng, who is Chinese American and easily could have plumbed the depths of his first-generation immigrant experience for colorful material to novelize, to his credit took another route entirely. An evident old soul at 29, Cheng, who grew up in Queens, N.Y., and has never been to Mississippi, has nevertheless conjured up a rhapsodic ode to the blues and the bluesmen that move him.
Set in the Jim Crow South, Southern Cross the Dog is the homecoming tale of one Robert Lee Chatham, a black man despite his name, who believes for good reason his brother has been lynched and his family falls apart in the wake of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that he is jinxed. Along the way he works at the Beau-Miel brothel, clears swampland for the WPA and is taken hostage by nefarious Cajun fur trappers.
There is a lively supporting cast, including the devilish musician Eli Cutter, who did a manslaughter bid and from time to time provokes some of the novel's more regrettable prose: "There ain't no God and there ain't no Devil, just a lot of Bad blowing through this world." More often than not, however, Cheng's writing is vivid and gorgeous, particularly in his descriptions of the flood.
"Telegraph poles had collapsed together in a nest of crucifixions," he writes, and "homes bled out their insides bureaus, bathtubs, drawers, gramophones before folding into themselves." It is a courageous act of literary ventriloquism pulled off with a flair that only occasionally succumbs to the twin threats of mannerism and contrivance.
The Blood of Heaven
Kent Wascom, a 26-year-old Louisiana native, has produced an astonishingly assured debut that traffics in many of the same themes and motifs as Cheng's book, while passing through some of the same locales a century-and-change beforehand. Set in the Deep South of the frontier years, The Blood of Heaven recounts the life and exploits of the fictional, silver-tongued Angel Woolsack, the son of a terrifying itinerant preacher, whom he refers to only as Preacher-father, and whose idea of punishment is to force Angel to suck on and swallow tiny bits of glowing hot coal embers.
Spreading the good word to mud-hovel-dwelling white pioneers in Upper Louisiana, father and son encounter Deacon Kemper and his two boys (real historical figures), who have taken to the road to convert souls and sell guns. Soon Samuel, the elder Kemper fils and Angel break free of their fathers' strict control and set out in search of Samuel's big brother on a rollicking trip that sees them working the Mississippi River, crate box preaching and preying on their flock.
"And so we set out with our Bibles and pistols," observes Angel. "Sundays were spent not at preaching, hearing the bells of the churches on the hill-top and the rusty whomp of iron drums beat with pans which sounded worship down our way, but waiting for night and robbery."
Angel swoons in Natchez for a prostitute named Red Kate, makes his way into the Spanish-owned territory of West Florida and eventually falls in with Aaron Burr's improbable conspiracy to create an independent nation. Wascom, for his part, is more knowing than a writer his age has any right to be and displays a virtuosic command of biblical cadence and anachronistic vernacular without striking any false notes.