Ocala author brings on the bedlam in ‘Purple Jesus'
Ron Cooper's critically acclaimed novel turns the spotlight on South Carolina's Lowcountry
Published: Sunday, January 30, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 6:11 p.m.
We know they're there. We may know them. Maybe we are them — the working poor, the lower class, the overlooked.
In some circles, they are derided as inbred, tooth-challenged imbeciles. They're ridiculed or, perhaps, ignored in popular entertainments.
Yet while oft overlooked, this class lives with all the dignity they can muster on minimum wage or less. Their stories, too, ought to be — need to be — told, contends Ron Cooper, a professor of humanities at the College of Central Florida.
Enter "Purple Jesus," Cooper's critically acclaimed peek at an Easter weekend in South Carolina's Lowcountry. But this is not a genteel Charleston; the action here takes place a few miles inland, in backwoods Cordesville on the edge of the Francis Marion National Forest where luxurious living is a single-wide in Markham's Mobile Home and Trailer Court Resort.
"These are my people," says Cooper, 50. He grew up in this underbelly that travel writers tend to romanticize with terms such as "natural beauty" and "unique cultural heritage." Interestingly, though, Cordesville itself isn't found on the state's official tourism website.
This is a community distinguished by its lack of distinguishing features; yeah, there's an Alligator Road and a Copperhead Road, but there's not much "downtown" in downtown Cordesville. What is there is a whole lot of nothing: swamps, trees, fields, bugs, lizards and "river dogs" (otters).
Nothing, that is, except its people.
"Most American fiction is written by someone in the upper class or middle class about the upper class or middle class; people with big boats, not a little john boat with a 10-horse outboard," Cooper says, traces of his native dialect seeping through his speech.
"My people, the backwoods poor, have lives as complex as educated, more-successful people," he adds. "They have the same problems, same worries and they fumble through them like everybody else."
"Purple Jesus," released last fall, is Cooper's second novel; moreover, it's the second tale grown from his roots. Though a few months old, the book has been gaining steam in the national market, including a recent — and glowing review — in The Washington Post.
The events in his first novel, "Hume's Fork," take place about 10 years after the action in "Purple Jesus."
"This is a much more plot-driven, traditional narrative than ‘Hume's Fork,'?" Cooper says.
In this prequel, we meet the perennial loser Purvis — a minor character in "Hume's Fork" — as well as the jaded Martha, fresh from a failed marriage and back to care for an obese ma, and Brother Andrew, a naturalist monk in silence at nearby Cainhoy Abbey who's wrestling with a crisis of faith.
Each is introduced early on as participant or observer of whole-body baptisms in the Wadboo Branch by the Rev. Pyron, who's not above copping a quick feel during submersion. Even minor characters live a rich, if brief, life in the book's 214 pages.
Their three lives spiral around each other as the weekend progresses, gradually imploding in on their inadvertent triangle.
"It's an ending that'll both nauseate you and have you rolling on the floor," says Darrell Riley, a Cooper colleague at CCF, where he's a professor of history.
"Ron has taken a step up with this book," Riley says. "He's shown that he's a great storyteller, carrying on the great Southern tradition of storytelling. It's both hilarious and macabre."
Cooper's editor at Bancroft Press agrees. "I was blown away the first time I read it," says Harrison Demchick. "It was an incredible journey."
But, it's not just editors and colleagues heaping on the praise. Cooper has collected an impressive array of glowing reviews, including the one earlier this month by The Washington Post. In that review, Eric Miles Williamson writes: "‘Purple Jesus' is so perfectly written, it's exhilarating to read."
Finally, what, pray tell, is Purple Jesus?
"It's a teen's first drink," Cooper says; it's a blend of grain alcohol, Kool-Aid "and a whole bunch of sugar" mixed in a big tub, presumably scrubbed out first.
But in "Purple Jesus" it's that and more, rather like an allegorical icon scattered throughout in a Hidden Mickey-like hunt.
"Finally," he adds, "Purple Jesus gets its due in literary fare."
Contact Rick Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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