SLR Contributor, Donna Meredith, discusses her thought-provoking meeting with philosopher and novelist, Ron Cooper, author of our May Read of the Month, Purple Jesus, which – as you’ll read below – doesn’t mean what you might think.
Jane Austen wrote while her family whirled about her in a comfortable village home. Ernest Hemingway wrote standing up. Many writers today like to isolate themselves at writers’ retreats in the mountains where the view inspires them.
Novelist Ron Cooper, on the other hand, writes in a small room off the garage that the previous owners of his home built as a kennel. “It is so ugly that no one else wants to be in it,” he says. You have to wonder if the delicious humor of this setting, of the writer being relegated to the dog house, hasn’t influenced Cooper’s writing.
His second novel, Purple Jesus, captures not only the beauty of the South Carolina low country he grew up in, but also nails the darkly humorous aspects of human behavior. Most of Cooper’s characters certainly would feel more at home in a kennel than they would walking the carpeted floors of an English cottage. They work in a plant that grinds up hogs. They drive propane trucks and drink a concoction of grape juice, Kool-Aid and grain alcohol called Purple Jesus—which could partly explain their foggy thinking.
“Most American fiction is written by, for, and about the upper middle class; poor people hardy get their say, and when they do, it is too often simply to contrast the main characters,” Cooper says. One thing that comes across in his works is his respect for all the characters, regardless of social class, innate intelligence, or education levels.
When I met Cooper in March at the Tallahassee Book Festival and Writers Conference, I found him to be the kind of man who would be amiable and comfortable discussing the finer points of Faulkner with fellow professors or stomping his feet with revelers at a bluegrass festival. That he can easily blend into many environs translates into the ability to create authentic dialogue for a wide range of characters. When Cooper reads aloud from Purple Jesus, the voices of lowlifes and monks ring equally true.
Cooper has a Ph.D. in philosophy and it informs his characters, even those who are uneducated or somewhat mentally deficient. “Ask anyone the big questions—What is truth? What is reality? Are our actions free or determined? Does God exist?—and he or she will offer definite, although muddled answers,” Cooper says. The main character of Purple Jesus, Purvis, is searching for life’s meaning as he struggles to overcome his own and everyone else’s estimation that he is a loser. He has learned bits of philosophy from a cousin who is a professor. “He says to himself at one point that what he needs is a good metaphor, which might be something we all need,” Cooper suggests. “I wanted to show that even though Purvis is none too bright, his problems and attempts to resolve them make a certain sense, given his situation and abilities. We all know people like Purvis who can never catch a break and can’t quite seem to get their lives under control.”
Another character seeking answers is the monk Andrew, who stalks the woods in hopes of finding mystical experience through nature. “In Andrew’s case, this feeling of connectedness to nature leads him away from formal, institutional religion and toward something more personal, away from the traditional concept of the God of classical theism and toward a more dispersed notion somewhere just west of Taoism,” Cooper says. He notes that humans are probably hard-wired for religion. “Some interesting work by anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists (such as Pascal Boyer, in his Religion Explained) suggests that early humans developed various inference systems for dealing with, not making sense of, their environments,” Cooper says.
“For example, if you notice the bushes moving, it may be in your interest to think that something alive is tracking you in those bushes and scheming to attack you,” Cooper adds. “If you are predisposed to thinking that way, you’ll be more likely to survive those rare occasions when there is a living threat, like a leopard, even though you’ll often be wrong when nothing is there other than wind in the bushes. Erring on the side of safety guaranteed that our ancestors survived to generate us. We may have inherited a natural tendency to believe that invisible beings are working behind the scenes and that we must negotiate with those beings. Maybe this predisposition is what gets translated by culture into world religions as well as into what people personalize into mysticism.”
The novel is packed with symbols, many of which are unusual and humorous, particularly the mussel and the center of the orchid. Purvis places great significance in these symbols as he tries to complete his “task” to be worthy of Martha. Cooper notes that people often laugh over phallic symbols but vulvic symbols are more shocking. “I think it’s because penises are funny. If someone says, ‘Doesn’t that building look like a penis?’ everyone else laughs. On the other hand, if you describe something as looking like a vagina, people become silent and exchange nervous glances.” But he is quick to point out he is not in the habit of making these observations. Not aloud anyway. “But if you look at an open mussel or an orchid and tell me that you don’t see a clitoris wedged in there, you’re lying,” he says.
For inspiration Cooper often draws on his youth in Berkeley County, SC. The Hairy Man described in Purple Jesus was said to live behind the dike on Lake Moultrie. “I’m convinced that the story was made up to discourage frisky teenagers from sneaking into the woods, but the Hairy Man, Big Foot, and their boogey-men equivalents are found all around, from the Jersey Devil to the Florida Skunk Ape. Personification of our fear of the dark or the woods or whatever is something everyone can understand.”
The obsession with pointing guns at nearly anything that moves was inspired by Berkeley County folks, too. In Purple Jesus, everyone wants to shoot the otters and the Hairy Man. If the Hairy Man ever existed and dared show his face in Berkeley County, Cooper has no doubt hunters would have pumped some double-aught into the beast. “My grandfather use to talk about the porpoise, or ‘pompus,’ he saw in the river, and I think for sixty years afterward he agonized with the regret that for whatever reason he had not shot the thing. Shooting things is just what they did.”
Many other seeds for the novel came from Berkeley County. Martha was not modeled upon anyone in particular, but Cooper did know many young women who tried to escape their sorry lives. They were often victims of abuse. “They made some desperate choices as teenagers, which meant a few years later they had to recast their plans and double their efforts,” Cooper says. Purvis, on the other hand, was inspired by a childhood friend who was always getting into trouble and by Flannery O’Connor’s Enoch Emery of Wise Blood. Another seed was the Mepkin Abbey in Cordesville, SC, which had an egg farm and a monk who left the priesthood to marry.
Other sources of inspiration include the entire canon of Southern authors, especially Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy. Of younger authors, Ron Rash and Padgett Powell are Cooper’s favorites. “I do read some non-Southerners!” Cooper claims. “If Salman Rushdie doesn’t win a Nobel Prize soon, something’s wrong with the world.”
Though the ending is likely to surprise readers, it was no surprise for Cooper. “I had the opening and the end clearly in mind and most of the plot fairly well charted out before I sat down to write,” he says. “There was room for a few developments in the middle but within fairly rigid limitations. Some writers say they let the plot take them where it may, but I don’t believe them.”
This summer Cooper hopes to finish a new novel radically different from his first two. The main character is Judas Didymos Thomas, the alleged author of The Gospel of Thomas, one of the Gnostic books that did not make it into the Bible. Thomas is Aramaic for twin, and Didymos is Greek for twin, and there is speculation that Thomas was Jesus’ twin. Cooper points out one would make a serious mistake to think that this book is religious or inspirational fiction. “It presents an alternative view that I hope readers will find thought-provoking as well as entertaining,” Cooper says.
He, no doubt, already knows the ending of this tale of a loving and devoted twin who struggles to understand what his fully human brother Jesus is up to. The rest of us will have to wait for the novel’s publication to find out.
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Ron was born in the South Carolina Low Country where he grew up traipsing through the swamp. He received a BA in philosophy from the College of Charleston, an MA from the University of South Carolina, and a Ph.D. from Rutgers University. He moved to Florida in 1988 and since 1995 has taught at College of Central Florida in Ocala where he lives with his wife Sandra (also a CF faculty member) and their three children.
Ron is a past president of the Florida Philosophical Association, has published philosophical essays, and is the author of Heidegger and Whitehead: A Phenomenological Examination into the Intelligibility of Experience. His fiction has appeared in publications such as Yalobusha Review, Apostrophe, Timber Creek Review, and The Blotter.