I’d been looking forward to reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil for quite some time. Ever since I read Capote’s In Cold Blood, I’ve been really interested in well-written true crime books, particularly ones written in the form of a non-fiction novel, a form that Capote pioneered. What I ended up getting was one but not really the other. This book isn’t really true-crime, although it has elements of that genre, and there is a murder at the heart of the narrative. But that’s not what this book is about. What it’s really about is Savannah itself, or rather, Savannah as John Berendt knew it before he wrote the book.
As Berendt himself tells us at the beginning of the book, he went to Savannah on a lark, and ended up falling in love with the place. He embedded himself in the local culture, hoping to gradually become an insider, with all the true access that implies. He wanted to write a book with true insight into Savannah, not just another travel guide full of lies and half-truths normally fed to tourists. Immediately from the first chapter, we can tell he’s succeeded. That whole first chapter we spend in Savannah resident Jim William’s lavish, historic home while he tells Berendt the ‘real’ story of Savannah, at least as he’s experienced it. Williams was a nouveau riche antiques dealer who made his fortune with luck and hard work. He spends his days buying expensive historic artifacts (he’s obsessed with Faberge) and his annual Christmas party is THE social event of the year. He essentially bought his way into society, and while he is accepted by traditional (read: rich) Savannah, he is by no means loved. It is Jim Williams whose actions are at the center of this book, and like the rest of the people and events he chronicles, Berendt uses it to tell a story about Savannah.
And the Savannah that Berendt uncovers, man, it’s a weird place. Full of people like Williams who once hung a NAZI flag in his window to prevent a film from being shot in the square nearby; Danny Hansford, the angry street hustler murdered by Jim Williams; the Lady Chablis, a pre-operative transsexual woman who latches onto Berendt and uses him as her ‘chauffeur’; Jim Odom, the self-proclaimed host of Savannah, who is always in financial trouble, always coming up with new schemes, and who draws people to him like flies to honey; Luther Driggers, who is known to have a jar of poison so strong it could kill the whole town if he ever poured it into the water supply; the voodoo priestess Minerva, who Jim Williams pays to work her business and get him out of jail; and many others.
The Savannah that Berendt portrays is weird and insular and extremely resistant to change. It’s a place that even throughout the 1980s and early 1990s is still highly segregated, where a black man and a white woman have to pretend they don’t know each other on their daily morning jogs, passing the leash of their poodle back and forth covertly. It’s a place that Berendt clearly loves, despite, or even because of, its eccentricities.
I really liked this book. At times the things he writes about are so ridiculous they can barely believe, but the way he puts it together it never fails to be interesting. I’ve heard the movie is pretty good and I’ll definitely check it out the next time I get a chance.