Purple Jesus by Ron Cooper

Regular readers will recall that I am a bit of a sucker for quirky novels that deal with faith or religion in some way.

So when I heard about Purple Jesus I was intrigued by the promise from the publishers blurb:

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.

So did it deliver? Sort of.  I will confess that any religious allegory or philosophical insight went right over my head (I admit I am not one to catch symbolism and the like). And it wasn’t really much of a love story.

What really sets the book apart is the “a dark and comic descent into the lives and world views” aspect. The capture of a time, place and culture rescues the book in my opinion.

The plot turns on three characters:

  • “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 …”
  • Martha Umphlett: “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 …”
  • 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 …”

Purvis thinks he has a way to finally escape but Martha does as well and it involves Purvis – and not in the way he hopes.

The week point in this threesome is Brother Andrews and the bird watching. I will confess that I saw absolutely no point in this character or in the book that goes with Brother Andrew – the bird watching diary from Father Philip. Maybe that is why I missed the allegory.

But the tale of Martha and Purvis is highly entertaining. Purvis is one of those lovable losers who just can’t rise about his situation or intelligence to break free from the low level tragedy of his life. When he decides to “go big” he simply escalates the tragedy to higher levels.

Martha realizes that taking advantage of this is cruel and wrong but she sees no other choice. Martha is not the beautiful victim – or she is not just the beautiful victim – she seems to be; instead she is cold hearted and focused on revenge and escape and she doesn’t care who she has to use to get what she wants.

But as I noted above, what really makes Purple Jesus worth a read is the colorful dialog and characterizations. Cooper captures a time/place/culture in his depiction of South Carolina Low Country small town life. The language, the relationships, the habits and vices, the world view – they all come to tragi-comic life under Copper’s hand.

The reader feels that this place really exists – or used to – and that Cooper is more an anthropologist than writer at times. There is clearly some philosophical underpinnings involved – and despite what I said above I was not blind to them all – pantheism and platonism, etc.

I would recommend Purple Jesus to anyone who enjoys lush and poetic descriptions along with the illuminating of unique worlds and cultures.  It is a unique work with a unique perspective.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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