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John Berendt'sMidnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has been heralded as a "lyrical work of nonfiction," and the book's extremely graceful prose depictions of some of Savannah, Georgia's most colorful eccentrics--remarkable characters who could have once prospered in a William Faulkner novel or Eudora Welty short story--were certainly a critical factor in its tremendous success. (One resident into whose orbit Berendt fell, the Lady Chablis, went on to become a minor celebrity in her own right.) But equally important was Berendt's depiction of Savannah socialite Jim Williams as he stands trial for the murder of Danny Hansford, a moody, violence-prone hustler--and sometime companion to Williams--characterized by locals as a "walking streak of sex." So feel free to call it a "true crime classic" without a trace of shame.
Sometimes Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction After reading Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil, it is easy to see how the book has become something of a phenomenon. Full of vibrant, likable characters and a real life murder mystery, the novel has a rare mix of charm and decadence, not unlike the city of Savannah itself.
And with all due respect to the Lady Chablis, the city of Savannah may be the book's most memorable character. Almost a living, breathing entity, Berendt's Savannah is a cross between Mayberry and Twin Peaks, a town whose charm and warm Southern hospitality hides its eccentricity and secrecy. Something is bound to boil over in such an environment and it finally does when local socialite Jim Williams murders his young male companion Danny Hansford.
Williams is the virtual embodiment of Savannah. He is a Gatsby-esque figure whose wealth, grace and social standing cannot completely conceal the darker reaches of his heart. He displays a cool confidence which undoubtedly helped him rise from a blue collar background to a position of influence. This cool confidence turns into a cold arrogance during his long and defiant legal battle. Still, it's impossible to dislike Jim Williams. He is (or was) completely fascinating because he is completely human.
As the saying goes, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction and Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil confirms that. Smart, funny, dark, suspenseful and engaging, this book is a definite treat.Spine-tinglingly good, with a caveat This really was a great book. It had a memorable story line, plenty of twists and turns in the plot, lots of great characters, appropriate suspense and foreshadowing, in sum all of the elements of a good story. It was so good, in fact, that it was almost too good to be true. And indeed, it kind of was. I listened to the audiotape version of the book - very well done by the way - at work, and I didn't want it to end. When it did finally end, the author John Berendt came on and talked a bit about the book. It is true that the author lived in Savannah for several years and spent much of that time mingling with the residents and researching the area. What surprised me was that the author first met Jim Williams while he was in jail for murder. So, he didn't meet Jim as described in the book. Also, he met and interviewed the other characters, including Chablis, et al only after the final trial, and wove them into the story as if he had interacted with them real-time. So this really isn't a work of non-fiction, but more like literal fiction, if there is such a thing. It doesn't detract from the fact that it is a great story, but in this case, the fiction is stranger, and more prevalent, than much of the truth.A Brilliant Balancing Act As explained by the voodoo priestess Minerva, the magic of her craft is best practiced in a one-hour period between 11:30 PM and 12:30 PM called "dead time."
"The half hour before midnight is for doin' good," she explains. "The half hour after midnight is for doin' evil."
Something of the same dynamic occurs here, in John Berendt's examination of the mores and manners of a backwater Southern city. The book is divided into two parts, the first of which draws us into the lush, amiable beauty of Savannah, Georgia, with its sleepy squares, Mercer songs, cold cocktails, and manor houses occupied by eccentric, slightly dangerous, but always charming characters; the second of which throws us in a convoluted murder case in which darkness springs out and a sense of evil's complicit character grows within you and yet, the charm of the first half remains vibrant as ever.
Some might call it voodoo. Berendt himself says he knew he had a bestseller when he first saw the cover photograph, a Gothic statue of a little girl holding two bowls, her head slightly tilting toward one with an ironic smile on her face. It sets the whole tone of the book, that we are going to get a balancing act between good and evil, fact and fiction, generosity and greed. Even the North-South dynamic is played with, as Berendt is a visitor from New York disoriented by the strange casualness of this very traditional place.
Great dialogue abounds, much of it of the overheard-in-the-hallway variety. Two old ladies are whispering at a party about a Luger used in a murder, and you the reader bend an ear.
"My late husband blew his brains out with one of those," says one.
"Oh! So did mine! I'll never forget it."
I should say not. Nor will you forget the case of antiques dealer Jim Williams and his naughty boy-toy, or the marabou-clad beauty of yesteryear who bosses around the help with a stevedore's vocabulary and seems the real-life model for Bette Davis' character in "The Little Foxes."
A minor criticism of "Midnight" is that Berendt's wanderings through the fair Georgia seaside city seem to acquaint him exclusively with old women and gay men. The transvestite Lady Chablis gets to be a minor annoyance. I guess the whole concept of "faction", that is the telling of a factual story through fictional constructs such as imagined conversations, sits poorly with me, but Berendt not only maximizes the obvious entertainment potential of such a method, he managed to write something that most everyone in Savannah was not only comfortable with but took pride in, especially when the tourist dollars started rolling.
"Midnight" has a mysterious charm that draws you in, and rewards return visits. At its conclusion, Berendt's narrative ironically lights upon a tour bus, ironic because the bus has but three passengers. After his book came out, Savannah became a kind of Disneyland destination for the book's millions of readers.
In the conclusion, Berendt notes the tourists leave "none the wiser about the secrets that lay within the innermost glades of its secluded bower." We feel much wiser after finishing this great book. But are we? Again, "Midnight" is a balancing act that holds together very well, and you will enjoy the game of reading it.