Book World: In 'Purple Jesus,' backwoods lowlifes fueled on moonshine
Set in the backwoods town of Cordesville, S.C., Ron Cooper's second novel, "Purple Jesus," features a 400-pound woman; a pistol-packing, revenge-bent beauty named Martha; a half-witted romantic named Purvis, who is in love with Martha; a white-lightning-drinking monk named Brother Andrew, who has taken a vow of silence and expresses himself primarily with a deadly bow and arrow; and a host of shack-dwelling inbreeds in need of serious dental work.
The novel opens with a redneck ritual: the gutting and ransacking of a recently dead person's house. Purvis is tearing out the walls with a crowbar, looking for Armey Wright's stash of cash, all the while cursing at Armey, who sits rotting in a chair with a small-caliber bullet hole in his head. What follows is a white-trash tale of greed, lust, drunkenness and violence. We get country baptisms in muddy, critter-infested creeks, propane tanks, single-wides, cheap beer and cheaper men and women, rusted pickup trucks firing on only a few cylinders, glue factories that grind up dead animals (and people), Rexall drugstores, Bible-toting hypocrites and plenty of tattoos.
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 though we've had our share of splendid chroniclers of America's good ol' boys, we've rarely had them rendered by a philosopher like Cooper, and perhaps never by an author with such a keen ear and unflagging precision.
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 title alludes to a fruity, white-lightning-spiked concoction.)
While Brother Andrew searches for his reason for being, Purvis searches for Armey's money and longs for Martha's love, and Martha tries to get out of hillbilly hell. Family secrets are somewhat revealed, though no one knows his own lineage for sure, since the women don't know which partner impregnated them.
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.
Williamson's fifth book, "14 Fictional Positions," has just been published. His essay collection, "Say It Hot: Essays on American Writers Living, Dying, and Dead," will appear this summer.
By Ron Cooper.
Bancroft. 214 pp. $21.95