Thursday, November 11, 2010

'Purple Jesus' by Ron Cooper

Fiction, 2010
Bancroft Press, hardcover, 214 p.
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, he’s sure he’s figured a way out: Rob an old man of the rumored millions hidden in his house. But all he finds is the old man dead and the money, if there was any, already gone.

Disappointed and defeated, Purvis is drawn to the sound of music across the creek. There, he discovers a beautiful woman in a white gown being baptized in the water. Surely Martha, beautiful Martha, will give Purvis the escape he imagines. With the Martha boat come to his rescue, Purvis decides, he’ll never have to worry about drowning.

But Martha Umphlett is trapped, too. 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, Martha, in her own way, is every bit as desperate as Purvis, but far more capable and a good deal more dangerous.

Their paths cross with that of 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, but it becomes clearer and clearer to him that the answers he seeks are not to be found in his monastery, his vow of silence, or the life he’s thus far known. But maybe the answer is in the girl he, too, sees being baptized across the creek. Perhaps Martha will make Andrew happy.

All three want and need something different in their lives, but the paths they’ll take are neither clear nor pretty, and they will not end well.
When I first heard about Purple Jesus, and read the synopsis, I thought it sounded quirky, and intriguing. Plus I also really enjoyed In the Wake of the Boatman by Jonathon Scott Fuqua, another Bancroft Press title that I read almost a year ago, so I was looking forward to giving it a try.

It might be common knowledge for some, but before I started reading it, I had no idea what "Purple Jesus" meant.
“[H]ey, you want to go to a PJ party?”
“PJ?” Martha asked. “A pajama party?” […]
“No, the drink PJ – Purple Jesus,” Purvis said. “Grape juice and Kool-Aid and oranges and sugar and grain alcohol mixed up in a big barrel. Drink enough and it resurrects.” (Purple Jesus, p. 98)
But it doesn't end there. In the book, "Purple Jesus" also refers to a certain part of female anatomy, and a rough wooden carving with a certain resemblance as hinted at on the cover, along with the drink mentioned above!

The strength of the book for me was how incredibly vividly Cooper portrayed the setting. As 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.

I have seen a few comments that compare this book to Flannery O’Connor and specifically his book, Wise Blood. Here is where I have to admit that I've never read anything by O'Connor so any similarity in writing or story is lost on me. However, it generally seems that the people who are familiar with O’Connor also really like Purple Jesus.

Do you sense where I'm going with this? I really wanted to like Purple Jesus. I did. I usually love quirky, unusual characters, which this book had plenty of. However, for me I felt that there were actually too many unusual characters in this book, doing strangely bizarre and completely mundane things by turns. The book is described on the back cover as a “tragic-comic story of hope, desperation, and the terrible consequences of both”. There is also a mystery running through it, a love story of sorts, and philosophical musings on life and religion. So many things that would normally appeal to me, but I just couldn’t connect to the story, or truly care about these characters. I feel like I missed the point.

This is certainly not a book for everyone, and I think I was just not the right audience for it. Perhaps we can blame it on the fact that I'm Canadian, eh? Seriously though, I’ve come to realize that I just don’t always get on well with heavy dialects in books, here the ‘Low Country’ dialect, nor do quintessentially Southern stories always appeal to me. These are my own personal quirks and preferences as a reader though. It's had some glowing reviews, so please be sure to check out the links below for some other opinions. It has also been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award, so my feeling is clearly not the general consensus.

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. And I'd really like to give someone who will appreciate it, a chance to read this book for his or herself. So I'm happy to send my copy of the book to anyone who is interested. Please just let me know, either in a comment on this post, or by email. If I get several takers, I'll put your names in a hat and draw a winner in a few days time.

Ron Cooper's website
For more information on the book or to order directly from the publisher, visit Bancroft Press.
Buy Purple Jesus at: [Hardcover] [Kindle] |

Thank you to Bancroft Press for the opportunity to read this book.

Also reviewed by:
Bitsy Bling Books
The Biblio Blogazine
Diary of an Eccentric
an unfinished person
If you've read and reviewed this title, let me know and I'll link to it here.

The small print: This book was received free of charge from the publisher for review purposes. Links in this post to Amazon (including book cover) contain my Associates ID. Purchases made via these links earn me a very small commission. For more information please visit my About Page.


  1. Liked your review & the comparisons with Flannery & also it sounds like it could be in the same vein as Nick Cave's " the ass saw the angel" all southern gothic & bible belt epic which I enjoy, so please add my name to your hat.

  2. I wanted to like this one, too, because I usually enjoy Southern stories and eccentric characters. But I couldn't connect with the characters at all, and there were too many crazy things going on. When I read descriptions that the book was supposed to be funny on some level, I just didn't understand what was supposed to be funny about the things that happened in the book.

    Thanks for the link love! ;)


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