Purple Jesus by Ron Cooper

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Title: Purple Jesus
Author: Ron Cooper
Publication Year: 2010
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 214
Count for Year: 47

How I discovered

I was invited to read this one by J.C. Montgomery of The Biblio Blogazine for a GoodReads discussion group and read-along, so I thought “Why not?” For Federal Trade Commission disclosure, I did receive a copy from the publisher for this review.

Synopsis

Purvis Driggers is a backwoods, South Carolina loser with little sense and less hope for a promising future. When he tries to rob an old man rumored to have money stashed in the walls of his house, Purvis finds no money and, worse, finds the old man dead. On his way home through the woods he falls for Martha whom he sees being baptized in a creek. Purvis spends the novel trying to impress Martha in increasingly bizarre ways, all the while worried that the FBI will pin the murder on him. Martha is trapped in her own desperation and plans to manipulate the gullible Purvis into helping her escape her sorry life.

Meanwhile, Brother Andrew, a silent monk from the small monastery by the creek, wanders the swamp to watch birds, practice archery, and meditate. He also sees and is attracted to Martha, which aggravates his restlessness and religious doubts.

Told from the characters’ alternating points of view, the story winds through dark humor, murder, dismemberment, a twisted love triangle, and a monster known as the Hairy Man. Is Purvis demented or just crazy with love? Does Martha care for Purvis, or will she simply, coldly exploit him? Is Purvis capable, as he claims, of doing anything for her? Can Andrew forsake his religious calling for a woman he has only admired from afar? Who killed the old man, and what about the money supposedly hidden in the walls of his house?

This tragi-comic story of perversion, betrayal, and mystery hurtles toward a shocking ending the reader will not soon forget.

The first time I heard the term “Purple Jesus” was a couple of years ago in reference to Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. However, perhaps not surprisingly for an author “born and raised in the South Carolina Low Country,” Peterson was not the subject of this novel. The “Purple Jesus” to which Cooper refers actually is two different Jesuses: one, a carved cypress tree that looks like Jesus, and two, a mixed drink, as one of the main characters, Purvis, describes:

Grape juice and Kool-Aid and oranges and sugar and grain alcohol mixed up in a big barrel. Drink enough and it resurrects.

Just as there are two different Jesuses, there are two different sides to this story: one tragic and one comical. The tragedy begins with Purvis discovering a dead man in a house Purvis hoped to find a stash of money. The comedy comes in, at least for me, when Martha, the dead man’s niece (although we don’t know until later), is baptized. Just before she’s baptized, she sees the line of cars behind her, full of people driving to the baptism:

Suckers, she thought. All of them thinking a dip in a muddy creek will solve their problems. It might, if they stayed under and drowned.

I couldn’t help but laugh at that last sentence, but also be a little repulsed by my own laughter. It was the moment I knew I would love this book, and did. Cooper walks a fine line between tragedy and comedy and often the lines blur, especially with the dialogue delivered in a South Carolina Low Country dialect. You can’t help but laugh, but then think, “Should I have laughed, because that’s really downright sad when you think about it?”

The weakest parts of the book to me are the ones with Brother Andrew, who seems to be spying on the story of Purvis and Martha until the end. However, the strongest parts of the book, the storylines with Purvis and Martha, are so strong that as a reader, you can’t help but be carried along with it all, wondering what is going to happen to this trio, well, at least the duo of Purvis and Martha anyway.

Also strong in the book are the philosophical references, which shouldn’t be a surprise for an author whose resume includes being past president of the Florida Philosophical Association and having published philosophical essays. The one to which Cooper refers several times is Ockham’s razor, which is described by Purvis as follows:

He said cut the extra stuff, because the simplest answer is the best one.

While I’m not sure I was satisfied with the ending, the journey toward that ending was more than enjoyable with the way Cooper wove the story, mixing in philosophical references from time to time with the dialect with which he is so familiar.  For that reason, I give this one a 4 out of 5.

My rating system:

5- Classic, must read
4- Worth owning a copy
3- Worth picking up at library
2- Worth skimming at the bookstore
1- Worth being a doorstop

I read this book in mid-September, but didn’t get around to the review until today. That’s fortuitous for Cooper, because the book is released tomorrow.