||October 15, 2010
A tragi-comic tale in which three unlikely and desperate characters--a directionless, delusional young man, a determined, but powerless young woman, a silent, angst-ridden monk--are drawn together by fateful shifts in geography and chance.
Purvis Driggers is a South Carolina Low Country loser. With little judgment and even less chance for a decent life beyond his parents house, home town, and whatever part-time work he can scrounge up, he s sure he s figured a way out: rob an old man of the rumored millions hidden in his house. But all he finds is the old man dead and the money, if there was any, already gone.
Disappointed and defeated, Purvis is drawn to the sound of music across the creek. There, he discovers a beautiful woman in a white gown being baptized in the water. Surely Martha, beautiful Martha, will give Purvis the escape he imagines. With the Martha boat come to his rescue, Purvis decides, he ll never have to worry about drowning.
But Martha Umphlett is trapped, too. Married and just as quickly divorced, Martha s been condemned to return to the home she d once escaped. Made to take care of her obese mother, and forced to participate in a baptism she has no interest in whatsoever, Martha, in her own way, is every bit as desperate as Purvis, but far more capable and a good deal more dangerous.
Their paths cross with that of Brother Andrew, a monk at a nearby monastery whose call more and more is not to God, but to nature, and more importantly, to somewhere else. He wanders the swamp to watch birds, practice archery, and meditate, but it becomes clearer and clearer to him that the answers he seeks are not to be found in his monastery, his vow of silence, or the life he has thus far known. But maybe the answer is in the girl he, too, sees being baptized across the creek. Perhaps Martha will make Andrew happy.
All three want and need something different in their lives, but the paths they will take are neither clear nor pretty, and they will not end well.
Infatuated with Martha, and certain she s the answer to his dreams, Purvis sets out to do whatever is necessary to prove his love, all the while terrified that the FBI will pin the old man s murder on him. Is he demented, or just crazy with love? Does Martha care for Purvis, or will she simply exploit him? Is Brother Andrew straying too far toward both of them and too far away from his faith? And just what is necessary for Purvis to prove himself to Martha?
Told from the characters' alternate points of view, this darkly humorous story wends its way through a web of murder and dismemberment, a twisted love triangle, and a woodland monster known as the Hairy Man.
As funny as it is sad, as beautiful as it is ugly, as authentic as it is shocking, and as powerful as anything you ll ever read, Ron Cooper s Purple Jesus is a murder mystery, a love story, a religious allegory and, most importantly, a dark and comic descent into the lives and world views of three unbelievable and unforgettable characters.
In 'Purple Jesus,' backwoods lowlifes fueled on moonshine
Set in the backwoods town of Cordesville, S.C., Ron Cooper's second novel, "Purple Jesus," features a 400-pound woman; a pistol-packing, revenge-bent beauty named Martha; a half-witted romantic named Purvis, who is in love with Martha; a white-lightning-drinking monk named Brother Andrew, who has taken a vow of silence and expresses himself primarily with a deadly bow and arrow; and a host of shack-dwelling inbreeds in need of serious dental work.
The novel opens with a redneck ritual: the gutting and ransacking of a recently dead person's house. Purvis is tearing out the walls with a crowbar, looking for Armey Wright's stash of cash, all the while cursing at Armey, who sits rotting in a chair with a small-caliber bullet hole in his head. What follows is a white-trash tale of greed, lust, drunkenness and violence. We get country baptisms in muddy, critter-infested creeks, propane tanks, single-wides, cheap beer and cheaper men and women, rusted pickup trucks firing on only a few cylinders, glue factories that grind up dead animals (and people), Rexall drugstores, Bible-toting hypocrites and plenty of tattoos.
We've seen antecedents to Cooper's story and characters before: Erskine Caldwell's "Tobacco Road," Faulkner's "Sanctuary," Cormac McCarthy's Tennessee novels, Chris Offutt's "Kentucky Straight," Barry Hannah's "Yonder Stands Your Orphan" and Michael Gills's "Why I Lie." But though we've had our share of splendid chroniclers of America's good ol' boys, we've rarely had them rendered by a philosopher like Cooper, and perhaps never by an author with such a keen ear and unflagging precision.
Cooper understands that a redneck sees through a redneck's eyes. For Purvis, Martha's arms "fold like the blades of a feeler gauge." The expressions on a changing face shift "like the elusive colors on a fish scale." Someone's abnormally symmetrical face appears bisected "as if someone had snapped a chalk line on it."
Edgar Allan Poe wrote that every word in a short story should contribute to the effect of the whole. Very few American short-story writers have met this standard, and even fewer novelists have managed the feat: perhaps Hemingway, maybe Marilynne Robinson, Roth in "Portnoy's Complaint," Updike in "Rabbit, Run." It's a rare thing indeed, but Cooper keeps their company. "Purple Jesus" is so perfectly written, it's exhilarating to read.
His ability to switch between the muddled minds of lowlifes and the spiritual goulash of intellectual monks is, to this reviewer's knowledge, unprecedented, shockingly astute and aesthetically delightful. In counterpoint to the rednecks, Cooper gives us Brother Andrew, the vowed-to-silence monk and archer. More articulate, philosophical and spiritual than Ken Kesey's silent Chief in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Brother Andrew is the intellectual ballast of "Purple Jesus." (The title alludes to a fruity, white-lightning-spiked concoction.)
While Brother Andrew searches for his reason for being, Purvis searches for Armey's money and longs for Martha's love, and Martha tries to get out of hillbilly hell. Family secrets are somewhat revealed, though no one knows his own lineage for sure, since the women don't know which partner impregnated them.
The ending of "Purple Jesus" is harrowing and perfect, Cooper being not only a master of language and thought, of dialogue and metaphor, but a brilliant plotsmith, too. Details seemingly random become crucial, and events and characters converge in an unexpected yet logical flourish.
The publication of "Purple Jesus" is a literary event of the first magnitude. And once again, like last year's Pulitzer Prize winner, "Tinkers," it comes from a very small publisher.
Out of a Poor Swamp Comes a Riotous Hero
Ron Cooper’s novel, Purple Jesus, is a riotous, thought-provoking package—like a toy that makes beautiful music and has a pinball function; or like a monster who weeps. It grows out of the culture of a poor, back-river South Carolina town; and features a hero who is both a dreamer and a dumbass. Pardon the mild expletive, but you better get used to it and more if you’re going to follow Purvis Driggers through the lower depths.
Purvis has got a murder, a gal, and his own misguided redemption on his hands—and, as he tells the owner of a sex shop about which he has no clue, “Lots of times I don’t see things right away.” He doesn’t see things because he’s distracted by one of his favorite concepts, metaphors.
He’s also distracted by Martha Umphlett, a too-smart-to-get-dragged-down and no-messing-around beauty. To Purvis, she’s a goddess. “I’m here and then you’re coming together, and arms all arming and symboled up,” he tells her at one point. Purvis doesn’t talk like that all the time. Sometimes he’s a straight shooter, such as when he bumps into two monks at Rexall’s and tells them, “Yeah. Look, I’d like to stay and shoot some monk s--- with you, but I got to go run up with this grease.” The grease is for his face, swollen with wasp stings suffered when Martha’s simple-minded brother raked down a nest at their trailer home.
Cooper’s universe is the kind you sometimes see coming out of America’s most impoverished locales: full of violence, breakdown, mythological heroism, and a kind of poetry. It’s the literature of realism and tabloid fantasy.
Does Cooper push it too far? At least six of about twenty of his characters are “touched.” At a PJ party—that’s a creekside bacchanalia fueled by “purple jesus,” a Koolaid and grain alcohol drink—rowdies stop and attend to a marvel. “A flashlight swung to the side, lighting up a small man”—a four-foot tall genius playing a mandolin in “a way to make the eight strings…sound like three times as many.” Purvis reflects, “Most people assumed he was retarded, and many thought him mute, but Purvis once had an educational conversation with him about catfish.”
Drop your political correctness. “Purple Jesus” is no sentimental journey. This kind of fiction is related to the ghost dances of cultures on their way out. It applies, too, to downtrodden Southerners in swamp country.
What makes Cooper’s work distinctive is his great talent at writing farce; his romance with Platonism and pantheism; his not shying from morbidity or vulgarity; and his Dylan Thomas-like turns at poetry. Andrew, the mute expert archer and monk observes how “Whitetail does, their fawns bulging inside, gorged on fiddleheads and slipped into gardens for early peas.” He’s also attuned to Ivory Billed Woodpeckers. Purvis notes how Martha voice was “like rain…the way quail must hear it, bunched in the broom straw, the drops sliding down their speckled, feathery backs.”
Psychology enters the story as much as it does in passion plays, in which everything is cast in high relief. There’s not much time for it, with a few exceptions, usually having to do with Martha’s predicament. At one point, Martha, survivor of abuse, is down by Wadboo Branch—the mythical center of the book—enjoying a “perfect moment” of peace. Shortly, two drunk boaters paddle by and lewdly offer her a ride.
Is there no escape from the lower depths except through derangement, passion, and music? Cooper gives us a wild ride and, with the title he’s chosen—which has four meanings in the book—he has advertised his carnival well.
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