Ron Cooper serves up dark humor, deep philosophy, and quirky characters in Purple Jesus
Review by Donna Meredith
Many novelists flounder when it comes to creating characters who talk and think differently. Not so, Ron Cooper, a professor of Humanities at the College of Central Florida. Every voice that speaks to us on the pages of Purple Jesus is distinctive, but three particularly stand out: Purvis, Martha, and Brother Andrew.
The story centers around Purvis, a South Carolina low county loser who was a minor character in Cooper’s successful debut work, Hume’s Fork. Purvis has a worldview as warped and wacky as that of Ignatius J. Reilly in Confederacy of Dunces. Yet, like the rest of us, Purvis longs to understand the meaning of life—and he yearns for a beautiful woman, one Martha Umphlett.
Because Purvis’s dreams are so universal, we can almost forgive him as he blunders along and misinterprets the signs and symbols of the world in ways that lead him into violence and crimes against others. With a lip swollen by wasp stings, bits of toilet paper stuck to his face from shaving nicks, and the inability to hold any job, Purvis may be a long way from possessing any of the traits that make Ben Affleck or Mark Zuckerberg successful, but Purvis is as human as the rest of us, and Ron Cooper never lets us forget it.
You ache for Purvis because in some vague sense he is aware of his limitations. “Lot of times I don’t see things right away,” Purvis admits. Sometimes, despite his mental limitations, he even has a brilliant insight: “Maybe he could explain to her that hardly anything’s necessary. Living and dying are, but how you do either is not.” He also concludes that “nothing is all good and beautiful. You need some bad and ugly to complete things.” The intermingling of Purvis’s occasional insights alongside his obvious misinterpretations make him a poignant character.
The object of Purvis’s desire, Martha Umphlett, comes from an equally poor family, one she could hardly wait to escape. Martha finds, like so many girls running away from home, that life outside is only as good as the people you run away with—and Martha’s husband is a no-good scumbag, so she soon winds up back home to care for her morbidly obese mother.
Early in the novel, though, the reader begins to suspect Martha has more tools to battle the dragons in life than Purvis. One weapon she isn’t afraid to use is her “sticking-way-out gluteus maximus” that one man compares to “two cathead biscuits made for some sopping.” But Martha has much more going for her than good looks. A canny intelligence and ability to read other people and their intentions aid Martha as she chases her dream of a better life.
The third character whose voice dominates Purple Jesus is a monk.
Brother Andrew has taken a vow of silence and spends his hours searching for meaning in the woods while studying the diary of Brother Phillip. Also a naturalist, the long-dead Phillip was drawn particularly to woodpeckers, especially the supposedly extinct ivory-billed variety. Andrew is fascinated by the voice speaking in the diary. Though Brother Andrew doesn’t speak himself because of his vows, we listen to his thoughts. He seeks meaning, the same as Purvis, but Andrew has rich intellectual and spiritual gifts and a life in the monastery that enable him to work toward his goals.
Many other unforgettable characters lurk in the pages of Purple Jesus. One is Agnes, who draws on eyebrows with a magic marker, uses surgical tape to lift her sagging eyelids, and exposes a mouthful of gum when she smiles. It’s hard not to laugh out loud when Purvis considers “taking a tour of her old cooter if she would just keep all that gum out of sight.” Another jump-off-the-page character is Martha’s obese mother Ruthie, who ignores Martha completely and cuts her out of conversation—unless the self-centered mama is ordering her daughter to bring her something to eat or to give her a bath.
Cooper uses irony and unusual juxtapositions to create humor in the novel. The wood carving Purvis believes to be a purple Jesus was actually conceived by the monk who sculpted it to be Barbarossa, the pirate. On another occasion Purvis hears a melody that becomes “slow and sad but prettier, reminding Purvis of a church song or something you might hear in a dentist’s office.” This observation, funny enough all by itself, comes after Father Andrew tells us he is listening to this same musician, a man capable of being a new Paganini, “a virtuoso condemned to play to unsophisticated ears.”
Another time, Purvis lays a sock over a dead man’s penis because he believes in “respecting the dead”—right before he carves the body into pieces and stuffs it through a grinder. At one point Purvis contemplates that “Most things seem to find their place if you give them enough of a chance.” By the novel’s end, Martha and Andrew appear to be finding their places in the world, but for Purvis this is not to be.
This world has never been kind to guys like Purvis, poor fellows who have been granted little in the brains department and even less in the way of luck. While the ending surprises at first, it also feels justified as the logical and inevitable result of the characters’ desires and decisions.
The literary scene is flooded with so many books it is difficult for a novelist to invent truly unique characters or craft an original plot. Cooper skillfully delivers both in this darkly humorous and deeply philosophical story.