10/20/13 “Purple Jesus is so perfectly written, it’s exhilarating to read,” wrote Eric Miles Williamson in The Washington Post. “The publication of Purple Jesus is a literary event of the first magnitude.”
Ron Cooper’s Purple Jesus is the heartbreaking tale of a hapless, not always well-intentioned young man—Purvis—being led around by his penis and his penchant for fantasy by a young woman determined to escape the backwoods rural poverty that asthmatic Purvis lacks the self-esteem to ever really imagine himself escaping. The book is also the best explanation—illumination—I’ve seen of how some modern-life tragedies come into being, the kinds of fatal tragedies that leave all of us gawking at the TV news and saying, “Why would anyone do that? What was he thinking?”
I stumbled upon Purple Jesus knowing nothing about it. As I was reading, I thought, “My God, this book is amazing.” After I finished, I went on the web and found Williamson in The Washington Post saying:
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.
I couldn’t agree more.
Many of the words in Purple Jesus are in dialect, something I find bothersome in other books, but in this novel the way the characters speak and think holds me spellbound. Protagonist Purvis’s thoughts are so original, so twisted, yet so logical if you believe in heredity and environment, that being inside his head alone is worth the price of admission. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so let me share a sampling of Ron Cooper’s pudding.
Purvis meets a bird-watching monk who’s taken a vow of silence (the Hairy Man that Purvis refers to is an abominable snowman-type creature that haunts a local swamp, according to Purvis):
That beats all, Purvis thought [about the monk]. Nutless and tongueless. What could be more useless? Purvis pictured an anemic-looking little man squatting behind a palmetto, jerking off beneath his cloak while a redbird warbled on a sweet gum limb. If a pissant like that walked up to a Hairy Man, you would know the spot from the shit brick the monk left.
If Purvis were the son of a doctor or lawyer, with all the advantages of the not-impoverished, he’d be at some prestigious university instead of driving Beasley’s gas truck in the South Carolina lowlands. Consider his intelligent sense of irony when told in a drugstore that an ointment will help “the swelling and discomfort” of his wasp stings:
You pay all that money learning to be a pharmacist’s assistant, Purvis thinks, and they teach you to say “discomfort.”
But it’s in his relationship with Martha (home after her divorce and determined not to stay) that he soars:
One woman, her back to Purvis, moved with such a flurry of twists and adjustments that she seemed to have many arms, like a spider. He was mesmerized by the confluence of limbs that fanned below a head of blue-black hair. …Her voice was like rain, not like on the roof, but the way quail must hear it, bunched in the broom straw, the drops sliding down their speckled, feathery backs. …“Salt water taffy,” Martha said, the words thick like cane syrup, oozing over her mother’s shoulders to seep into Purvis’s ear. …The screen door creaked open, and Martha floated out onto the porch, descending toward the yard like a spirit. Her arms were on the door, then one on her hip, then at her hair, then on the rail, again as if she had four or six arms—but not like a spider. This was a symbol dance, Purvis thought. He tried to remember where he had seen that picture, the one of some goddess from China or India who had a bunch of arms, and each hand made a sign, and people from over in whatever that country was could read the finger movements like a Bible. Martha was not really a boat, but maybe her arms could scoop up Purvis and save him from drowning. …Martha blew a smoke ring that twisted upright and rolled, and throbbed like a drunken hoop snake, and flattened and floated over Purvis’s head. This could be another message from symbolic Martha, who was moving again. Turning to lean against the truck beside Purvis, she placed some of her arms on the fender. She searched Purvis’s eyes, as if helping him remove a speck. …Martha leaned forward with all her hands on her hips. …She took a quarter from her pocket with one hand and passed it to another, and then to another, and held it out to him.
Purvis climbed onto the [ truck] seat and closed the door. “I just got to find a place to turn around.”
“Story of my life.”
She had already turned toward the house, her four or six arms drawing diamonds and hexagrams and other beautiful shapes in the air.
Martha, of Purvis:
What struck Martha most about his face, though, was the hopelessness. …Young [her ex-husband] had been the first train leaving all this, and Martha had jumped on, destination unknown, like a hobo. Could she hop another, one with no stops until it plunged from a trestle in Mexico at seventy miles per hour?
…The gas man [Purvis] leaned against the Beasley truck at a risky angle, as if he were testing the strength of his hip. His frame was unorganized, puppet-like, as if his skeleton was carelessly attached, joints ill-fit, ligaments insecure. He was probably about Martha’s age, but his slack-jawed gaze was stuck on her like a fourteen year old, watching his first dancer at the strip joint. As Martha approached, his eyes shifted, as though he were tracking a swarm of bees around her back and sides or thought himself unworthy to look fully upon her.
He wanted Martha. Like all the other men with so much as a pulse in the groin, he wanted her, but not like the others wanted her. This one did not want simply to ease an unbearable ache, to lie upon her body and clutch her thigh and chew her neck. He wanted to sink through her body’s depths, to be dragged along by its undertow, until resurfacing was impossible and the only responses were drowning or growing gills. This one would do anything she asked. He would kill for her, kill his mother and father if they turned on her, kill himself if he became a burden to her, kill her if she tired of living.
I can’t quit without adding that author Ron Cooper uses shifting point-of-view as spectacularly in relating plot as he does in revealing characters. Here are Martha’s mother and Aunt Doris talking when they’re interrupted by Martha’s cousin, Larson, a developmentally-challenged, physically small man:
Larson stumbled through the door sobbing and babbling.
“Take your hand out of your mouth, son,” Doris said. “I can’t tell what you’re saying.”
He took his hand out, but went on about grabbing “the rake like he said do and I done told him we didn’t need no more gas, and he didn’t listen even…but it caught on the nest and it come down when I pulled it and they come after me and they fast and bit my fumb.”
“Who?” Doris asked.
“Them wast-es what the gas man was fixing to shoot with his hose, but they come down with the rake and chased me—”
“He needs some salve on it,” [Martha’s mother] said. “Hey, there goes a Beasley truck driving by right now.”
Here’s Purvis, three pages later:
Floating Jesus. Purvis wondered who would send somebody so off to knock down a wasp nest.
“Look at it.” Closing his eyes, Larson swung the heavy rake at the nest, missing wildly.
“Godamighty damn, it looks like somebody’s head hanging up there,” Purvis said. “You stay right here. I got an idea.” He pulled the propane hose back between the trailers. “When we shoot this gas at the nest, it’ll kill those boogers instantly, like they were froze. Now you point this at the nest like a gun while I go back and cut it on.”
“Not supposed to cuss.” Larson held onto the rake with one hand and reached with the other.
“Hold it with both hands,” Purvis said. “Get rid of the root rake or I’ll be cussing a assload more.”
Larson threw the rake straight into the air. It hooked and stuck into the nest as if it had been slapped against a cantelope. “Lookit!” Larson squealed. A cloud of wasps swirled around the top of the trailer.
“Don’t move,” Purvis said. “They come after you when you run. Let them settle down, then I’ll ease back to the truck and flip on the valve.”
Larson giggled and jumped for the rake handle.
“Keep still, you little dumb-ass!”
Larson jumped again, reached the handle, and pulled the rake and the nest down on top of Purvis.
“Larson!” [a woman] called.
Purvis tripped over the propane hose and landed on his back. He felt a fiery pain in his bottom lip. He slapped the nest from his stomach and felt a stab in his right ear. He scooted off the hose, then rolled up to his hands and feet, dog-scuttling for a few yards before straightening up to run, flailing at his head.
Every review should include comparisons, according to our October guest blogger, Carolyn Sienkiewicz of the Washington Independent Review of Books, http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/. I couldn’t think of a novel to compare Purple Jesus to, but I thought of comparing it to my all-time favorite short story, Flannery O’Connor’s tragicomic, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Then I looked at the back cover of my copy of Purple Jesus and found that Ron Rash, 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, says, “Purple Jesus… deserves a place on the bookshelf between O’Connor’s Wise Blood and Crew’s The Gospel Singer.” Godamighty damn, so be it.
(Ron Cooper will be our 11/1/13 guest blogger and will be interviewed here on 11/20/13.)