John Berendt - Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil


Maybe Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a comedy of manners. It could well be a science fiction story where the protagonist ends up in an alternate reality. Maybe it's both. The protagonist is John Berendt, born in 1939, writing in 1994. The alternate reality is Savannah during the 1970s and 1980s. The comedy of manners is provided by the inhabitants of the wonderful city.

Berendt achieved fame and probably riches because of the almost three million copies he sold of his book and the four year stay on the bestseller lists, a record that might still stand today. The Savannah inhabitants already were rich, pretended to be, or wanted to be. Berendt observes and describes them. He himself carefully avoids to get stuck in the limelight. We know he's a reporter, we know he started to live in Savannah because a plane ticket from New York (where he lived) was cheaper than a moderate NY dinner. That's about it. So the book is clearly not about John Berendt.

And of course it's not about the homosexual antiques dealer and nouveau riche Jim Williams either. Williams, living in Mercer House, surrounded by antiques and Danny Hansford, a male prostitute boy of 21. Then things go wrong. Danny is shot by Williams, who is claiming self-defence. But that's only the second half of the book.

Many people buy this book to read that second half, and tell you they struggled through the first half. For me it's rather the other way around. I didn't like Matlock (although I loved Columbo) but I did like the bizarre parade of weird and wonderful people Savannah seemed to be filled with. As soon as Berendt makes a new acquaintance, we are treated with people from the alternate reality. From the white to the black cotillion, from voodoo magic to a schlemasel with poison that can (or can't) kill everyone in Savannah.

Sometimes it's clear that Berendt describes something as a conversation he obviously hasn't attended or witnessed firsthand. I understand why that is so, but I'd rather have the more documentary style, where Berendt observes and describes. The changes of perspectives - from documentary to storytelling - make you realize that you're reading speculative dialog or maybe hearsay. It suddenly places you out of the story, instead of keeping you captivated. Berendt should have chosen for one style: when he's there, he can tell it as the firsthand it is; when he's not there, he should have presented it as secondhand information.

In the end it doesn't bother - it doesn't bother at all. In this book Savannah is a wonderful place, a world on its own. The people living there are a cast of characters any movie producer would be jealous of. If only Jim Williams didn't show his Nazi-banners.

For those who want a Matlock story with a solid conclusion, a whodunit in real life, should let the book pass. Who wants to read about an exceptional bunch of people observed in an exceptionally good way should pick it up and read it. Welcome to the alternate universe of Savannah, Georgia.