Purple Jesus: symbol and cocktail
March 17, 2011
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. They party hard one night, imbibing a mixed drink composed of grain alcohol, grape juice, Kool-Aid, oranges and sugar. It’s the Purple Jesus cocktail, but that’s not the only source for author Ron Cooper’s title: the 24-year-old protagonist Purvis Driggers visits a nearby monastery, and a monk gifts him a wood carving that looks to Purvis like a purple Jesus.
There’s likely symbolism in the carving that I didn’t get, as well as in the Hairy Man, who lurks in and around the area’s woods and swampland. This mysterious creature turns out to be the monastery’s Brother Anthony. He carries a bow and arrow, peeps on baptisms by the Pentecostals in the river and also on that Purple Jesus party. The Hairy Man is closer in character to human foibles than holiness, and I found him to be annoying for his behavior that doesn’t ring true. But then, Cooper isn’t going for a realistic re-creation of life in this wacky novel; he’s aiming for bizarre, which is its own form of realism.
The storyline anchors on Purvis’ pursuit of Martha, a woman who’s returned to the lowland area to be with her 400 pound mother, Ruthie, living in a trailer park. Purvis and Martha cross paths outside Armey Wright’s house where, inside, the guy sits upright at his kitchen table, dead from a gunshot wound. The how and why of their meeting is too much of a twisted plotline to go into here. Suffice it to say, it involves money allegedly hidden in Armey’s home, Martha’s baptism, a swarm of wasps and a side job of driving a propane gas truck. Purvis invites Martha to the Purple Jesus party, and there, that night, she asks him to help her commit a crime. The crime, and all that follows, is outlandish and sometimes gruesome, leading us to Cooper’s inventive conclusion that, yes, involves the Hairy Man.
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 by no means perfect, with its unbelievable helix of incidents and discordant narrative patchwork, but it’s 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.”