"Shots rang out in Savannah's grandest mansion in the misty, early morning hours of May 2, 1981. Was it murder or self-defense? For nearly a decade, the shooting and its aftermath reverberated throughout this hauntingly beautiful city of moss-hung oaks and shaded squares. John Berendt's sharply observed, suspenseful, and witty narrative reads like a thoroughly engrossing novel, and yet it is a work of nonfiction. Berendt skillfully interweaves a hugely entertaining first-person account of life in this isolated remnant of the Old South with the unpredictable twists and turns of a landmark murder case." "It is a spellbinding story peopled by a gallery of remarkable characters: the well-bred society ladies of the Married Woman's Card Club; the turbulent young redneck gigolo; the hapless recluse who owns a bottle of poison so powerful it could kill every man, woman, and child in Savannah; the aging and profane Southern belle who is the "soul of pampered self-absorption"; the uproariously funny black drag queen; the acerbic and arrogant antiques dealer; the sweet-talking, piano-playing con artist; young blacks dancing the minuet at the black debutante ball; and Minerva, the voodoo priestess who works her magic in the graveyard at midnight. These and other Savannahians act as a Greek chorus, with Berendt revealing the alliances, hostilities, and intrigues that thrive in a town where everyone knows everyone else." "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story is a sublime and seductive reading experience. Brilliantly conceived and masterfully written, this enormously engaging portrait of a most beguiling southern city is certain to become a modern classic."--Jacket.
There was a lot of discussion at book club as to whether this should be classified as fiction or non-fiction. Here's my verdict: who cares? If the story is entertaining and well told, whether or not it's 100% factual shouldn't make a whit of difference to anyone who is looking to be entertained.
It should also be said that the cover art for the book is perfect. The bird girl of Bonaventure Cemetery stands there like Savannah itself, prim and old-fashioned, holding out both good and evil--head cocked in curiosity to see from which bowl her citizens will take.
The author doesn't stay to long with the actual details of the murder either, instead describing its effect on upper-class society, and indeed the city of Savannah in general. This way, the crime becomes the backdrop to his account of a fascinating part of the American south, rather than the other way around, and for me at least this works swimmingly well. As an account of a crime, this book might have been rather bland and unremarkable if it wasn't for its loving and deeply atmospheric descriptions of Savannah and it's inhabitants. As a reader, one cant help but long to see this city of with it's old mansions and lichen-covered oak trees that the author describes in such lovingly detail without allowing himself to let the pace drop or getting stuck in irrelevant details.
For all it's descriptions of violence and social plotting and pettiness, the book is clearly a love letter to Savannah, and that's fine by me.
(First draft - might be revised)
The books is interesting primarily because of its portrait of Savannah, with its rich history and unique characters. It’s really not all that flattering, at least from my perspective, because beneath the genteel, charismatic, and charming façade, there is an undercurrent that condones or at least tolerates things like racism, drunk driving, and scamming innocent people out of money.
My issue with the book really isn’t that though, because most or all of that may be an honest portrayal. My issue is that it wasn’t all that well written, at least from my perspective. The chapters particularly towards the end needed tightening (starting with just deleting chapter 19), as the thread through the trials became muddled. In the hands of a better writer the character sketches and events could have been woven together better, but as it is, it falls flat.
There is also a falseness about the book in places. For example, the narrator/author is very oddly ‘along for the ride’ to the cemetery at midnight, but then becomes invisible. The dialog also seems over the top and cliché, for example the transgender drag queen Chablis: “You know how those white girls get when they get a piece of black dick, honey. Black dick will wear you out! It will make you wanna write all your checks.” Ugh. I don’t follow the comparison to In Cold Blood, as Capote was both more poetic and believable.
Love the title, love the concept, love the cover photo, but not well executed. Apparently the rest of the world disagrees, based on it being on the NY Times best seller list for 216 weeks! :P
On cities in Georgia:
“We’re not at all like the rest of Georgia. We have a saying: If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is ‘What’s your business?’ In Macon they ask, ‘Where did you go to church?’ In Augusta they ask your grandmother’s maiden name. But in Savannah the first question people ask you is ‘What would you like to drink?’”
And this one from a voodoo priestess, explaining the title:
“Now, you know how dead time works. Dead time lasts for one hour – from half an hour before midnight to half an hour after midnight. The half hour before midnight is for doin’ good. The half hour after midnight is for doin’ evil.”
Now, there are books where I find this more palatable. This book's progenitor is obviously Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which is an awesome read, with such literary qualities I forgive it. At its heart, or at least its middle, of Midnight is a real-life murder--just as with In Cold Blood. However, though this has a very polished style--the writer was an editor at New York Magazine and Esquire, I can't say I felt this had the psychological insight or masterful prose of Capote. I can see some of the qualities that made this a bestseller. This is obviously trying for Southern Gothic. Half of the book isn't so much True Crime saga as a portrait of Savannah, Georgia and its inhabitants. This is framed as a first person account, and maybe it's the rarefied circles Berendt moved in, but it was very hard for me to either identify or sympathize with the people in this book, or really take them as real. (I mean really, this man walks around with a bottle of poison that could poison the entire city?) The man at the heart of the murder mystery, antiques dealer Jim Williams, left me cold--which might have been Berendt's intent. But the same could be said of the gallery of grotesques and grifters that he presents, who aren't the kind of company I wanted to keep. Not in a work of fiction, and in the world of fact, I might have been more fascinated if I felt more sure of... well, Berendt's facts.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a portrait of Savannah, an isolated town in Georgia where John Berendt, a journalist from New York found himself by chance and was quickly enchanted by the cast of eccentric characters living there. With a strong architectural restoration movement and a love of old southern values, Savannah quickly struck Berendt as an island stuck in time and a delightful counterpoint to an accelerating modern America.
Berendt acknowledges in a foreword that many took his book to be a novel rather than a piece of travel journalism, perhaps because a natural story evolves – a murder – and the protagonists of the town all seem a little larger than life. He observes that while some writers have complained that it’s rare to meet people in life who would hold the reader’s interest, in Savannah’s case:
It was my good fortune that the people I met and wrote about were highly original, fully-blown literary characters who were absolutely compelling without any help from me.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is that rarity of travel journalism – a work of dedication. Berendt didn’t pull the usual trick of spending 2 or 3 drunk weekends in Savannah before recording as gospel the idle gossip of the maid. He rented a house and spent considerable time over several years to get to know the social and cultural scene of this eccentric Georgian town. He was evidently charmed by the place and consequently the reader, too, falls under the spell of the cocktail parties,
It’s the eccentrics of course who capture the reader’s heart; the sullen, disturbed inventor who treasures a bottle of poison powerful enough to kill the entire town; a rich bachelor who likes to disrupt the invasive film productions made outside his house by draping a Nazi banner in view of the camera; the transexual drag queen who terrifies the sensibilities of cultured society and the freeloading lawyer who holds guided tours of historic houses that he himself is squatting at the time.
It’s with the murder trial that the meaning of the title Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Becomes apparent as the rich defendant puts less faith in his lawyers than in a backwoods voodoo witch who charges him $25 a day to curse the opposing DA and hostile witnesses. She stands in the courtroom, chewing voodoo roots and giving the targets of her black magic the evil eye.
Later, she takes Berendt with her to the graveyard at midnight. Any time before the stroke of midnight she can work positive magic but after the clock strikes 12 there’s only the potential for cursing. Much to the annoyance of the defendant she spends most of her time hustling her dead husband for the winning lottery number.
John Berendt is a wonderful storyteller and evidently a very likeable guy as he’s embraced by this conservative community into its most exclusive circles. Or perhaps it’s just the thrill of being written about that encourages the inhabitants of Savannah to confide in this Yankee and make possible his book. At any rate Berendt’s openness and in meeting all elements of society allow him to paint a portrait of this sultry town of hothouse flower eccentrics that make Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil required reading for any travel writer.
There is a reason Berendt did not win the Pulitzer for this book, and that is because he broke the cardinal rule of non-fiction - thou shalt not lie. Berendt rearranged the chronology of his book to improve the story - this in the days before "A Million Little Pieces" and "Running with Scissors" taught us that "memoirs" that are popular enough don't necessarily have to be "true."
But, regardless of how fast and loose Berendt plays with the truth (and he acknowledges his straying in his Author's Note), the book is extremely well written, very readable, and, now that I have spent some time in Savannah myself, "true." Berendt does capture the spirit of the place, the slightly shabby at the edges, eccentric, charming and bizarre city of the South. The book itself is sort of like one of it's major characters, the Lady Chablis - dressed up to hide the "truth" about itself, but ultimately, the act is so enjoyable you'll forgive any little deception required.
Williams is one of the true characters of the area. He's an antique dealer and was influential in the restoration of Savannah's historical district. He lives in the ancestrial home of songwriter, Johnny Mercer.
There are a number of truly unique personalities in the story. The mournful Luther Driggers is an eccentric investor whose ideas haven't made him any money and is said to carry a quantity of poison with him. He also plays with houseflies.
Serina Dawes is a friend of Luther and a wealthy woman who enjoys her life of leisure. There is also Lady Chablis, a cross dressing nightclub performer.
Jim Williams is accused of murdering his companion Danny Hansford who is known for his drug dependency and explosions of temper.
Brendt lays out the story slowly, perhaps, in sync with the pace of life in the city.
It is interesting to see the society members who attend Williams' annual party and appear to be such dear friends. However they turn a cold shoulder when he's accused of murder.
I enjoyed the story but found the pace a bit slow. Brendt brings the life to Savannah and allows us to see just a bit of what really goes on in this garden of good and evil.
The book is nominally divided into two parts. In Part One, we are introduced, properly or otherwise, to a cross-section of Savannah's citizenry, high and low. My favorite in this section is the The Grand Empress of Savannah, where The Lady Chablis makes her entrance.
Part Two is organized around the murder and the resulting trials. But that is still a backdrop, so to speak, for more revelations about Savannah and its denizens. We meet Sonny Seiler, one of Williams' lawyers, who is a rabid Georgia fan and who is the proud steward of Uga IV, the latest in the long line of bulldog mascots of the University of Georgia athletic teams. We also meet Minerva, who assists Williams with voodoo magic designed to influence juries, curse prosecutors, and placate Hansford's angry spirit.
But the best of all in this section, as far as I'm concerned, is the chapter on the black debutante ball, in which the cream of Savannah's black society present their debutantes in a very formal affair. In an unforgettable scene, the Lady Chablis crashes the ball and makes her own indelible imprint on the occasion. It is hysterically funny.
Berendt lived 8 years in Savannah and his knowledge of and love for the town and its residents is very evident. His stories may be factual, but they read like the best fiction. The behavior of his people is so eccentric that it is hard to believe they're real. Yet, he says they are (names changed to protect the innocent and guilty alike), and various people who ought to know have assured me that, yes, that's the way it was--and still is.
While the trials are, to me, nowhere near so interesting as the people themselves, the book ends on a suitably Savannah note--the death of Jim Williams in his study, falling to exactly the place he would have lain if Hansford's shots had killed him.
He introduces an unusual bevy of entertaining characters. Not just the proper uppercrust society of Savannah, but also those quirky enough to catch his eye. There's a man who could poison all of Savannah; a beloved resident who lives happily without permission in vacant mansions while their owners are away; a flamboyant drag queen, and my favorite of all – a voodoo witch who is certain she can alter trials with help from those in their graves.
Most of the story revolves around Jim Williams, a 'new-money' dealer of priceless antiques whose gay lover is found shot to death in Jim's study. Jim doesn't deny he did it, but the police theory of how it happened and Jim's explanation vary wildly.
I would not give this Pulitzer Prize finalist the 'true crime' label it often wears. But it is fun and entertaining and I'm glad to have finally read it.
Berendt strikes a good balance between travelogue and fiction; his characters are compelling and self-organized, like a novel, but he retains just enough reality and outsider perspective to keep you guessing whether the story itself will resolve into a narrative. He seems to care about the people involved, and tries not to treat them as character-fodder.
As is typical in southern narratives, the voodoo practitioner is the moral guide. This is a functional restriction which makes you wonder whether the character actually existed, since she's so convenient to the forward momentum of the plot. Whether she's real or not, at least Berendt doesn't bring her in as the token practitioner and then wheel her out, stage left, throwing curses as she goes.
I have to dim my searchlight to a streetlight. Still think it's good but now, well, now I can't see past the one-hit-wonderness to the glories I once took for granted.
Rating: 3.75* of five
The Book Report: Bored Manhattanite journalist realizes, back in the 1980s, that lunch at a trendy restaurant costs more than air fare to a sexy Southern retreat (those were the days!) and the resulting experience was more lasting. So John Berendt becomes a commuter to Savannah, Georgia, which is the American Bath for sheer physical prettiness, though quite a lot hotter.
Being a good journalist, he meets everyone worth meeting, and being a gay man, meets the entire A list of gay life in this small city in record time. Then he stumbles into an amazing story of murder and skulduggery among the social elite as the elite intersects with gay and gay-for-pay culture.
Along the way he talks to every single interesting person in Savannah and builds a word-picture of its typically Southern hierarchical social scene. As The Lady Chablis, an African-American drag queen would say, "Flawless!"
My Review: Not exactly flawless, but wonderful. Southern characters abound, including the old root woman who introduces Yankee John to the world of the haints and spitits and loa that Southerners, even the Babdiss ones, are aware exists, even when they scream and rail about it as evil, wrong, bad...well, they do that about sex too, and with as much effect.
Cemetery dirt is a powerful ingredient in the sympathetic magic the old root women practice. Where it comes from, that is whose grave it was, matters, as do many other factors, and Yankee John reports with wide-eyed fascination on the entire experience of getting involved in the magical universe to help an accused murderer.
The end of the story is, very sadly, the end of a single book career. [The City of Falling Angels] notwithstanding, this is Mr. B's one book. Fortunately, it's a very good one. Unfortunately, it's the only one. And so I ding a half-star off for literary incomplete pass. But it's a helluva read!
Be wary of the movie version of Midnight, though. Good actors, bad adaptation. If you like the book, however, you may want to watch it just to see the notorious drag queen play herself. Sometimes, truth really is better than fiction.
I don't think I would recommend this to a lover of true crime. I would recommend it to anyone who likes to read stories about people, especially quirky people. Also anyone who likes “Southern Gothic” fiction.
Narrative Context: High (audio and movie versions)
Subject(s): Savannah; Southern Cities; Travel; Character Study; Homosexuality; True Crime
Type: Historical Approach; Memoir; Memoir of a city
Tone: Southern Gothic; Gossipy; Somewhat nostalgic; “Those crazy Southerners.”
Special Features A novel of character studies tied together.
Characterizations: A black transvestite; A southern-gentleman lawyer who takes in strays, writes bad checks (and then advises those taking him to court), steals utilities, but is overall a good guy; The woman of 6,000 songs; The closeted gay antiques expert, who gives elite parties, but shoots an employee/lover; Jewish couple trying to force social respect/acceptance
“I understood all that, but I still wondered about certain small details concerning my jogging companions. Why, for instance, did he carry the leash? And when and where did they get close enough for her to give it to him? The whole point, I finally realized, was that I would never know.”