Copyright © by SuZi, 12/31/10
The South, as a geographically centered culture, has been the subject of a slow and steady colonization since the American Civil War (and the absence of a promulgation by the mainstream media of a sesquicentennial of the Civil War seems oddly suspicious, since, in the words of generations-born Floridian Ginny beard “The Restoration never ended”). This colonization—some would say the Restoration alone, and attribute a terminus to the early twentieth century—has also effected the nation as a whole: mostly observable as evidenced by the history of the public school system, and by the ubiquitous nature of Big Box commerce. Although Manifest Destiny is a phrase not yet picked up for Orwellian inversion in our current cultural climate, Manifest Destiny was the philosophical Third Reich of American history that allowed for a populist tolerance for genocide and cultural extinction. The colonization by Euro-based cultures of the American landscape is an argument (at least) that continues today; however, less clean, as there’s no way to sanitize the evil of the BP oil spill ( and would reaction be so passive if the culture destroyed included the Atlantic coast north of Nag’s Head, Carolina?). Nonetheless, the colonization of the South continues, is, indeed, institutionalized. A tacit prejudice exists and is daily demonstrable. Perhaps an interesting symbol of this institutionalized prejudice against the South is evidenced by a recently released novel and the novel’s critical reception: Ron Cooper’s sophomore effort Purple Jesus.
Reviews of Purple Jesus make mention of the novel’s symbolic aspects, but only J.C. Montgomery essays any actual effort to interact with Cooper’s careful construct—and this is only through the most superficial view of the characters. Characterization is a core element of storytelling, and Montgomery’s Biblio Blogazine review declares “that having three main characters was in a way,[sic] a trinity, a triangle in which each side is connected to another. That each was separated by an acute angle, yet remain connected and part of a whole”. Montgomery posits thus Cooper’s use of characters as symbolic, but offers no further illumination, only the default view “each represents a different side of ourselves: desperate, haunted, and hunting for […]transcendent”—a comment as much as much applicable to Antigone as it is to Cooper’s characters. Yet, reviews of Purple Jesus on the Google blog Collected Miscellany, on the site an unfinished person, and in the lofty NYT Sunday Book Review, don’t even lift that much finger of thought—except the finger the NYT gave the entire novel.
The arrogance of the NYT’s Cameron Mitchell is the most telling example of an institutionalized prejudice against the Southern sensibility overtly present in Purple Jesus. Mitchell sees the novel as having “outlandish scenarios and ghastly attempts at humor”, thoroughly misconstruing the novel’s climax—a scene of horror. Cooper’s handling of humor is subtle. Currently, in corporate comedy, only the buffoon, the depreciating and sloganeering swagger of a single, superficial but Southern symbolic character is allowed voice. Appositionally, Cooper’s characters are painted with far more sensitivity than would comfort a subscriber to Manifest Destiny. Kevin Holtsberry’s Collected Miscellany review condescends to describing one of Cooper’s characters, Purvis, as a ‘lovable looser who can’t just rise above his situation or [have] intelligence to break free from the low level tragedy of his life”, while remaining blind to the burden of socio-economic disenfranchisement that Purvis symbolizes. What flummoxes all the reviewers is the character of Brother Andrew, who unfinished person describes as “spying on the story” and who Holtsberry describes as “the week[sic] point in this threesome[…]and the birdwatching. I will confess I saw absolutely no point in this”. A monk who has taken a vow of silence and who is an expert archer, brother Andrew ought to clue and reader with more that a GED to sit up and understand the otherworldly nature of this character is exactly the door through which Cooper attempt to usher the novel’s philosophical point. Even the Catholic online site describes Andrew as wanting to know the residence of the earthly divine, and cooper’s character appropriately memorizes the woods and waterways, searching for a near extinct woodpecker, with the avian-detailed diary of a now-dead monk as his guide.
Birds are archetypes in all cultures; unfortunately, in the post-colonized mentality, they become objects of fear. In Purple Jesus, passages of ecstatic bird observation reinforce what what Cooper reiterates as a sly joke—the grappling with the origin of renaissance thinking, literally of enlightenment, via references to William of Ockham. Ockham sought to avoid “needless classifications” (Stevenson) when thinking about the nature of something, the essential elements. Cooper’s novel itself seeks to lift the reader into the atmosphere of a sensitive love of this place, the novel’s Southern setting, and a compassionate view of its people. Although reviewers made bare mention of the novel’s setting, a way of life is of the place—a fact that viral proliferation of generic franchises seeks to erase. Birds, of course, are geo-specific (and those species of great migration ought to widen the concept of terrain to hemispheres, to a global perspective very inconvenient for the profiteers of Manifest Destiny). Cooper’s clever change of authorial voice in these passages of avian inspiration will alienate the speciophobic misanthropes that populate the rodent warrens of cities. How can they not? A reference to the pileated woodpecker, an endangered species, as “God Almighty” and the line “the exceedingly shy Ivory-Billed, whose sighting is as rare as the Creator’s”(51) is another of the novel’s sly jokes, as the Ivory Billed Woodpecker is debatably extinct. Nevertheless, the deification present in Purple Jesus is for the place itself, this section of the South. Cooper’s compassion is for the people who have endured a century and a half of soft-gloved terrorism inflicted by the dominant culture. That his idea would be intuited by the sycophants of that same power structure and terrify them ought to be no surprise. Yet, our present moment is one of a cusp—ours is the decision to continue our rapacious despoilment and commit planetary murder-suicide, or to stop the buck of brutality. That Cooper’s novel should incite knee-jerk prejudice towards the South, towards a rural mentality, towards Cooper’s ideas of the transcendence of nature is only worrisome for anyone who wants out of our self-created dystopia and looming apocalypse.
Cooper, Ron. Purple Jesus. Bancroft Press. 2010.
Kevin. “Purple Jesus by Ron Cooper” Collected Miscellany. 2010. collectedmiscellany.com/2010/
Mitchell, Cameron. “Fiction Chronicle:Purple Jesus”. The New York Times Sunday Book Review. December 12, 2010.
J.C. “ Review : Purple Jesus” . The Biblio Blogazine October
14, 2010. the bibliobrat.net/2010/rev-
Andrew” Catholic Online .2010 catholic.org/saints/saint.php?
Stevenson, Jay. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Philosophy Alpha. 2005
person “Purple Jesus by Ron Cooper” 2010. unfinishedperson.com/2010/10/
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