A wildly ambitious debut novel—vividly imagined, frequently poetic—conjuring the Southern Delta of the first half of the 20th century as a fever dream, steeped in the blues.
One of the most frightening songs by the bluesman Robert Johnson is “Hellhound on My Trail.” This narrative suggests an elaboration of Johnson’s classic, extended to novel length, filtered through Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. The main musician in the story is a barrelhouse piano player and voodoo shaman, peripheral to the narrative as a whole but pivotal to the life of protagonist Robert Chatham, a boyhood survivor of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. “Houses rose up, bobbled, then smashed together like eggshells. Homes bled out their insides—bureaus, bathtubs, drawers, gramophones—before folding into themselves. The people scrambled up on their roofs, up trees, clinging to one another. The water blew them from their perches, swept them into the drift, smashed them against the debris.” Through hopscotching chronology, the plot follows Robert from the apocalyptic flood through a devastating stint as the ward of a bordello (where he meets the piano player who introduces him to both the titular dog and the devil), through his adult years as an itinerant laborer, working to clear the land for a dam that promises “A Shining New South,” even as it threatens the livelihood of the backwoods Cajun trappers who give Robert’s path another detour. The author’s virtuosity occasionally gets the best of him, as when he has Robert’s not very reflective or sophisticated father remarking on an evening that finds “everything singing out the great mystery of the world” (which fits thematically but sounds more like a young novelist with an MFA). There are also passages that verge on Faulkner Lite: “The one truth God has ever given to a man. And it’s that the past keeps happening to us.” Yet it’s hard to resist the sweep of Southern history that the author conjures through the experience of his protagonist, the way he makes the devil as palpably real as the natural world that he pervades, blurring the distinction between dreams and destiny. The title suggests a mysterious piece of Southern folk art, and the novel works a similar magic.
Not a perfect novel, but a strong voice and a compelling achievement.