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Ron Cooper's "Purple Jesus"

“We’ve seen antecedents to Cooper’s story and characters before: Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, Faulkner’s Sanctuary, Cormac McCarthy’s Tennessee novels, Chris Offutt’s Kentucky Straight, Barry Hannah’s Yonder Stands Your Orphan, and Michael Gills’s Why I Lie. But Cooper understands that a redneck sees through a redneck’s eyes. For Purvis, Martha’s arms ‘fold like the blades of a feeler gauge.’ The expressions on a changing face shift ‘like the elusive colors on a fish scale.’ Someone’s abnormally symmetrical face appears bisected ‘as if someone had snapped a chalk line on it.’ 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. Purple Jesus is so perfectly written, it’s exhilarating to read. His ability to switch between the muddled minds of lowlifes and the spiritual goulash of intellectual monks is, to this reviewer’s knowledge, unprecedented, shockingly astute and aesthetically delightful. In counterpoint to the rednecks, Cooper gives us Brother Andrew, the vowed-to-silence monk and archer. More articulate, philosophical and spiritual than Ken Kesey’s silent Chief in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Brother Andrew is the intellectual ballast of Purple Jesus. . . . The ending of Purple Jesus is harrowing and perfect, Cooper being not only a master of language and thought, of dialogue and metaphor, but a brilliant plotsmith, too. Details seemingly random become crucial, and events and characters converge in an unexpected yet logical flourish. The publication of Purple Jesus is a literary event of the first magnitude. And once again, like last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Tinkers, it comes from a very small publisher.”
—Washington Post Book World

“From an old time southern Gospel ‘river dunking’ to a solitary monk’s mystical quest for the sublime, Ron Cooper’s Purple Jesus explores America’s diverse culture of religious enthusiasm in a colorfully perceptive and often humorous way.  Assigning this book to college students, as I have, is an entertaining and ingenious way to draw them into thoughtful discussions about religion, southern culture, and even philosophy.”
John Mathews, Professor of Humanities, Bay College (Escanaba, MI)

Purple Jesus is a novel that deserves a place on the bookshelf between O’Connor’s Wise Blood and Crews’s The Gospel Singer, but Ron Cooper has his own unique voice, and what a marvelous, darkly comic voice it is. He is an immensely talented writer.”
—Ron Rash, 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist for Serena

“Cooper’s previous novel, Hume’s Fork, drew critical comparisons to A Confederacy of Dunces, and some of the same elements are in play here: zany Southern characters with a fumbling grasp of philosophical ideas.”
—The New York Times Sunday Book Review

“Ron Cooper’s Purple Jesus is a happy handful of a book. With characters as recognizable as they are eccentric, a storyline as inclusive as a revival tent, and a prose style that snaps like garters, it is one nifty read. Anyone who doesn’t enjoy this novel just doesn’t know how to have a good time.”
Fred Chappell, former longtime professor of English, University of North Carolina, and award-winning Novelist and poet (Prix de Meilleur des Livres Etrangers, the Bollingen Prize, and the T. S. Eliot Prize)

Purple Jesus is one of those books you read in a single day. Purvis Driggers, the novel’s hero—if that word remotely connects to this bizarre figure on the bottom layer of a world that defies description—stays in the head, and he won’t go away. The writing is antic, smart, and often memorable. This is a fine novel.”
—Jay Parini, acclaimed author of The Last Station

“Purvis Driggers isn’t what you’d call the most solid of citizens in the swampy South Carolina lowlands. Not yet 30, he thinks like a codger. He also swears with the avidity of a heretic and the fluency of a poet, and Cooper (Humanities/College of Central Florida) adds much entertainment value to an already entertaining tale with the blasphemies of Purvis and his trailer-park coterie … As Cooper’s picaresque tale opens, Purvis is smack in the middle of a breaking-and-entering job that goes wrong from the start . . .  You’ll want to read Cooper’s rollicking tale, which has elements of the hero quest, echoes of ancient mythology, and some resolutely modern moments of extreme violence. Margaret Mitchell it’s not, but Cooper’s sometimes tender tale of love and confusion is a pleasure to read . . . A lively redneck romance with out-of-the-headlines currency.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Ron Cooper’s novel Purple Jesus is a riotous, thought-provoking package — like a toy with a pinball function that makes beautiful music, or like a monster who weeps . . .  Cooper’s universe is the kind you sometimes see coming out of America’s most impoverished locales: full of violence, breakdown, mythological heroism, and a kind of poetry. It’s the literature of realism and tabloid fantasy . . . This kind of fiction is related to the ghost dances of cultures on their way out. It applies, too, to downtrodden Southerners in swamp country. What makes Cooper’s work distinctive is his great talent at writing farce; his romance with Platonism and pantheism; his not shying from morbidity or vulgarity; and his Dylan Thomas-like turns at poetry . . . Cooper gives us a wild ride and, with the title he’s chosen — which has four meanings in the book — he has advertised his carnival well.”
—Asheville (NC) Sunday Citizen-Times

“Following Hume’s Fork (2007), this wacky sophomore novel—part mystery, part morality play, part screwball comedy—leaves the reader winded but entertained . . . At times magical . . . it will appeal to readers looking for fiction beyond the usual boundaries.”

“Stand back: America has a new major author.”
Say It Hot: Essays on American Writers Living, Dying, and Dead by Eric Miles Williamson (Texas Review Press, June 2011)

“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 . . . Many other unforgettable characters lurk in the pages of Purple Jesus. One is the toothless Agnes who draws on eyebrows with a magic marker and uses surgical tape to lift her sagging eyelids. 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. . . 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.”
—Southern Literary Review

“In his refreshing take on the novel of ideas, Cooper combines philosophical reflection with a rural setting, working-class characters, an engaging storyline, and South Carolina low-country vernacular to create a rare, pleasurable experience for the reader . . . Cooper’s work is ambitious and succeeds, making the accomplishment look easy in Purple Jesus. The book is a lesson in what a good novel of ideas can and should achieve aesthetically.”
—American Book Review

“A bit like Wizard of Oz meets Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil meets The Color Purple. Peculiar, interesting, and intriguing.”
Jeffrey Allan Johnson, Commander Instruments

“I have just finished reading Ron Cooper’s new novel. I know that what a publisher typically wants a reviewer to do is assemble a fanfare of comparisons—to Lewis Nordan, to Walker Percy, or even to Faulkner. But the truth is that comparisons just aren’t enough. Purple Jesus shows that Cooper has the ear of a poet engaged in the sport of finding exactly the right words. He has the wild-haired tendency of a philosopher to mix beliefs, ideas, possibilities, and humor as if he was whipping up a Sunday pot-luck supper casserole. And he combs and plumbs the memories of his childhood home like a shaman knitting together the culture of a tribe. Damn me if this isn’t a fine book, a powerfully good yarn that makes you want to thrust pages under someone’s nose and say, ‘Read this!’”
Garrison Somers, Editor-in-Chief, The Blotter Magazine, Durham, NC

“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 strongest parts of the book are so strong that, as a reader, you can’t help but be carried along with it all, wondering what is going to happen.”
—An Unfinished Person
“The writing is poetic at times, coarse at others. The author’s background in philosophy and as a professor of humanities is evident. Using his knowledge of the South Carolina Low Country, he conveys to the reader language and nuances that help create the setting and characters to an astonishing depth. Purple Jesus has been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner award, and I have no doubt it will be a strong contender. I can also see the easy comparisons made to another southern writer, Flannery O’Connor. For those of us who seek out the unique, new voice in the wilderness of literature, I recommend you check out Ron Cooper. His Purple Jesus is an amazing, intriguing, transformative, philosophical, thought-provoking story.”
The Biblio Blogazine
“With inventive prose and eccentric characters, Purple Jesus has a lot going for it. I would like to see this book, published by a small, independent publisher, find an audience, so please check it out if you like Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, or John Kennedy Toole. You’ll find a lot to enjoy in this rich book. A rollicking southern Gothic feast.”
—Reading Is My Superpower: Tales of the Superfast Reader

“I enjoyed Purple Jesus so much! At its heart are the adventures of Pervis Driggers, a gullible yet well-meaning soul. The characters aren’t always sympathetic, but they are always compelling. I kept hoping that everyone would get pretty much what they deserved, and after finishing the book, loved arguing about whether they had. You’ll love this book, too.”
—Kelly Phillips, Portland, OR

“Ron Cooper has done it again. His first novel, Hume’s Fork, was an instant classic and Purple Jesus, his second novel, is as fine or finer. He has assembled a cast of characters whose expressions are laugh-out-loud funny. Martha gives Purvis ‘a look that could worm a dog;’ Martha’s boots are described as ‘the sort he supposed a woman would think made her look nice, and would be good in a fight;’ on a man’s one-armed wife, ‘no woman of his was going to safety-pin her sleeve up like government cheese-eating trash;’ a woman says, ‘My first husband could sing like that. Last I heard, he was doing revivals with a big circus tent and a kangaroo;’ a man’s bare bottom is described with ‘his tail just a-shining like the rapture come for us;’ and, when trying to get his truck out of the woods, Purvis says, ‘I just got to find a place to turn around.’ Martha replies, ‘Story of my life.’ Mark Twain would be jealous if he was still alive. You won’t find people or plot like this anywhere outside of Purple Jesus. It’s a novel not to be missed.”
—William Cliett, adjunct professor, University of Florida,  Gainesville, FL

“If you like dark and peculiar literary fiction, you should give Purple Jesus a try. Talk about an eccentric bunch of people, from Agnes and her taped eyelids to Martha’s mother asking her to rub ointment on her rolls of flesh. Although its plot didn’t grab me, Cooper’s writing did. His vivid descriptions put readers right into the scene—and several times, the images were so vivid they made me sick to my stomach. Purple Jesus definitely is an adventure!”
—Diary of an Eccentric

“The strength of the book for me was how incredibly vividly Cooper portrayed the setting. Because the story takes place in small town South Carolina, it was a completely different world from what I’m used to. I couldn’t help thinking to myself as I was reading, ‘Wow, there really are people who think and talk like this, aren’t there?’ Yet, I felt like I could truly picture this town, and these characters . . .  It might be greatly simplifying things, but I’m going to say that if you like Flannery O’Connor, and Southern literary fiction, then you will probably enjoy this book.”
—In Spring It Is The Dawn

“A tragi-comic novel about the South Carolina low country, Purple Jesus is certainly entertaining . . .  Cooper does a great job creating the characters and backdrop for his story. The people and the culture are hilarious and all too believable. And the main story—the relationship between Purvis and Martha—is well done . . .  The characters and their voices are worth the price of admission.”
—Kevin Holtsberry, Writer

“I enjoyed it, especially Cooper’s capturing of the South Carolina Low Country dialect.”
—Unfinished Person

“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 him 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, cold-hearted and focused on revenge and escape, she doesn’t care who she has to use to get what she wants. What really makes Purple Jesus worth a read are the colorful dialogue 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 are clearly some philosophical underpinnings involved, and though I admit I am not one to catch symbolism, I was not blind to it. I 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.”
—Collected Miscellany

“Not being an avid reader, it’s rare for me to come across a book that interests me, let alone one that stimulates and excites me. This masterpiece does both, and then some! Dr. Cooper has managed to take the backwoods mentality and scenery of SC, and turn it into a wondrously vivid mental show. From beginning to end, Purple Jesus makes you feel as if you’re really there, watching the story unfold. Whether you’re an avid reader or not, PJ is worth reading. I highly enjoyed this book, and have been recommending it to everyone I know, and even those I don’t! If you only read one book this year, make it Purple Jesus!!
—N.A. Miller, Dunnellon, FL

“Second novels often fail to live up to original works. This is not the case with Purple Jesus, Ron Cooper’s second literary voyage into the countryside and characters that live in and around Monck’s Corner, SC (his first was the exceptional Hume’s Fork). This latest novel provides deep insight into the human condition—onethat few modern writers have achieved. Cooper’s use of words and sculpting of sentences puts him into a unique class of authors— those you keep reading just to see what they say next. I can’t recommend this novel more highly. I believe it is the best book of 2010, and maybe the best novel of this young century.”
—D.G. Riley, Ocala, FL
“Mainstream, almost-a-mystery novel set in a small Southern town with some memorable and often hilarious characters.”
—Specifically Spec Fic

“If you understand Southern country ways, language, and mentality, Purple Jesus is a fun read, filled with the characters that live in Southern backwoods, speak like they are from another planet, and sometime make the Hatfields and McCoys look like geniuses. Yet Cooper infuses the book with philosophy, ornithology, religion, and other insights of a bright mind that understands people and places, especially the rural South. My years in Texas (long, long ago), rural Louisiana (a half century ago), and small-town Virginia provided me the background for an insightful and enjoyable read. Anyone who hasn’t tasted moonshine, been to tent revivals, or hunted squirrel surely has missed out on part of life. Anyone who has had these experiences will love this book, and others with a sense of humor and sense of the ridiculous may appreciate it as well.”
—Longhorn1 on amazon.com

“The story winds through murder, dismemberment, a monster known as Hairy Man, and a twisted love triangle. It’s a mystery filled with perversion, incest, and betrayal. The author has been compared to Erskine Caldwell, and Purple Jesus does remind me a little of Tobacco Road.”
—The Oklahoman

“It would be convenient to label Ron Cooper’s Purple Jesus as simply a tale of the South; but, despite its setting, its primary theme is universally American in nature. Each of its main characters displays the distinctly American need to ‘move on’ toward something he or she perceives as better—or at least different—than his or her current station in life. Purple Jesus explores this desire through the stories of three characters in radically diverse situations, particularly focusing on the impediments (whether real or perceived, created by society or self-imposed) with which they struggle in an effort to achieve their goals. Along the way, we glimpse others who refuse to continue moving, believing they have reached their objectives, only to stagnate by refusing to face the unfulfilled realities of their lives. Some characters overcome obstacles of their own creation to enjoy the freedom successful pursuit provides, symbolic of the ‘American dream’ that one can achieve anything in this country. Simultaneously, though, Cooper contrasts failure due to insurmountable limitations despite one’s best efforts, indicative of the reality many Americans face. He leaves the reader with the suggestion that realization and acknowledgement of such failure is nevertheless an achievement greater than the contentment of having reached one’s goals. Cooper, himself a native of his characters’ Lowcountry backwaters, has moved on from the lot cast by his place of birth. However, he has not forgotten the voice and the vision his background created. While it seems most reviews of Southern writers require a mandatory comparison with the works of famed authors from the South, I am not literary enough to be fair to Cooper or others in making such a comparison. Rather, I believe Cooper’s success in Purple Jesus is his ability to tell an introspective story of American ambition with a profound command of the local dialect that is his birthright, polished with an almost ‘silly’ view of the human condition that undoubtedly stems from his chosen path as a philosopher. While these same elements were at work in his first novel, Hume’s Fork, Cooper displays an improved balance in Purple Jesus, making it a more mature and, ultimately, better book. Cooper continues to move on.”
—Skip Utsey, Attorney, Waterboro, SC

“Here’s an outrageous novel, populated with South Carolina lowcountry losers who go by such colorful names as Pookey Villeponteaux, Earthine Cheatwood and Half-Ass Singletary . . . Without a doubt, the book’s strength is the southern trailer-trash speak. Cooper so authentically captures how these crude, lazy people talk to one another that their senseless troubles and all their stupidity superbly sing on the page. The bantering and empty exchanges are hilarious, and I mean über hilarious. This book is worth reading alone for the howl-out-loud backwoodsy hick talk: ‘Martha, bring me a beer, shug, and you ain’t got to get me no glass like you do for your mama.’”
—Kassie Rose, Book Critic, Ohio National Public Radio Station WOSU, Columbus, OH

“Purvis Driggers (love the name) is typical swamp trash.  His low intelligence and lack of fortitude and ambition nearly guarantee that he will be a slacker-loser his entire life. Then he lucks upon an old man who, it is rumored, has money tucked away somewhere. He also happens to appear quite dead. Purvis doesn’t know who killed him, but decides to treat himself to a stroll through the house to look for money. So starts Purvis’s quest for wealth and love. The love part starts when he hears singing by the river as he sneaks out of the dead man’s house and spies a baptism going on. One look at the beautiful Martha in the sheer baptism gown and he’s a goner. 
But Brother Andrew, a monk with his own agenda that’s not always God-like, has also spied the damp Martha in the water and believes she could help in his salvation. Neither man realizes that Martha is colder and more cunning than either of them put together. This is a novel of three people, all loving, hating, and using each other—sometimes for the same goal, and sometimes completely across each other’s wants and needs. The dialogue and description of the South Carolina Low Country, its people, and its culture is very authentic, and that alone is well worth the read. Seeing if Purvis rises above his birth and place in life is another.”
—Dew on the Kudzu (Celebrating the Southern Written Word)

“I read Purple Jesus and was blown away. It certainly lived up to the praise, no matter how ‘hyperbolic’ it may have been. The Faulkner comparisons are accurate, and I’ve probably never said that about any other book. Ron Cooper captures that low-country voice better than anyone I’ve ever read—I grew up not too far north of the South Carolina low country so it was particularly intriguing for me. Brilliant!”
—Drew Krepp, Aspiring Novelist

“Darkly comic, intimately entertaining, and packed with meaning, Ron Cooper’s second novel, Purple Jesus, is shockingly funny and thought provoking from beginning to end . . . Cooper has a talent for creating a seemingly generic scene in American life—young people partying and drinking, eating mussels, the hobby of wood carving—and extracting hilarious and thought provoking moments from pathetic people in ordinary lives . . . A journey to discover the purpose of being, to find success and security, and to escape the irresolvable and unchangeable past move these characters through a murder plot, the murder of a man no one cares enough to provide a decent funeral . . . Cooper artistically weaves authentic, back country dialogue within prose that switches in a style unprecedented from the perspective of Purvis, Martha, and Brother Andrew. It is as if there are three different third person narrators for each character, a narrator who can more effectively translate for the character to the reader. Through this shift of perspective, somewhere in a murky third-person-in- the-first, character is extrapolated in a way that makes the narrative a quick plot infused with philosophy, culture, and religion. These characters are funny, quirky, and perverse, each in their own way, promising to entertain while delivering a deeper undercurrent of meaning . . . The shocking behavior and circumstances of these characters continues to shock up until the very last page. There are no meaningless details, no lost references, and no unnecessary characters. Even if only for humor, the woman who tapes her eyelids open exists, Ron Cooper has not forgotten any worthy backwoods folk in this tale.”
—Baltimore Book Reviews

“I love it when I’m reading along and come across the title of the book or the meaning and explanation of that title.  This book is great and the scene where a character explains to another what “Purple Jesus” is (not an NFL player)  is a truly laugh-out-loud moment. I really really liked this book. It’s the second one written by philosopher Ron Cooper (his first was Hume’s Fork which I read earlier this year).  The story unfolds as chapters alternate between the points of view of the various characters—there is murder, a bizarre love triangle, a mystery Hairy Man, and ‘low-country’ folks and their folklore. It’s sad one moment and twisted funny the next and then Cooper throws in something that shocks you. This book is full of eccentric characters, some religious allegory, and farce, and really is a great read.”
— Aussieemjay’s Blog

“I admit I was skeptical when I glimpsed a review claiming that this book belongs on the shelf beside Flannery O’Connor’s, Wise Blood, which is one of my all-time favorites. However, after reading Ron Cooper’s writing, I stand up and applaud. Hell, I cheer! I give a woot, dance a jig, and shout ‘amen.’ Yes, indeed, Purvis and his crew can toe the line beside O’Connor’s religious misfits. So how does it compare? The dialogue is authentic, Cooper’s voice original, and the symbolism evokes humor, philosophical thought, and moral dilemmas as well as perceived sexuality. A string of items are presented and seemingly unrelated, yet somehow connect and relate. For me, this story was about perception and assigning meaning to anything. An extremely entertaining read with a deep undercurrent. If you are a fan of Flannery O’Connor or Chuck Palahniuk, you will dig this book. I highly recommend it. I received the ebook for review, but intend to purchase the paperback because this book needs to be on my shelf so I can read it again and again. I’d love to discuss the story in a book club forum. Purple Jesus will definitely make my top 10 must reads of 2010. In fact, it just made #1!”
—Charlie Courtland, author of Dandelions in the Garden

Awards and Honors

  • Required Text, “Contemporary American Fiction,” University of Texas (along with Twain, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Melville)
  • Honors Read, Fall 2011, Bay College, Escanaba, MI
  • “Read of the Month,” Southern Literary Review
  • Best Book of 2010, Bitsy Bling Books (Blog)
  • Honorable Mention, “Top 5 Books I Read in 2010,”An Unfinished Person (Blog)
  • Washington Post review re-run in Miami Herald and Concord Monitor
  • Weekly Bestseller, Politics & Prose (Washington, D.C.)
  • “One of the best books to read this summer”—All Sides with Ann Fisher,WOSU, Columbus, OH

Title Information
ISBN (13 digit): 978-1-890862-70-1 (9781890862701)
TITLE: Purple Jesus
AUTHOR: Ron Cooper            
PUBLISHER: Bancroft Press
WEB & Email: www.bancroftpress.com; bruceb@bancroftpress.com
STREET DATE: October 15, 2010
PRICE: $21.95 (cloth)
FORMAT: hardcover
SUBJECTS OF BOOK:  Fiction/Humorous Fiction/Philosophy


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