Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil
Published in 1994, Midnight In The Garden Of Good and Evil chronicles the period when New York writer John Berendt lived in Savannah, Georgia and paints a portrait of the town.
In my mind Savannah conjures up Southern accents, cocktails, lovely old buildings, - a dash of Gone With The Wind. Berendt's depiction has all these things in spades. Savannah, in Berendt's depiction is a parochial and insular town which wants nothing to change and there's something quaint and appealing about that in such fast moving times.
To begin with, Berendt seeks to showcase the city through the lives of it's various inhabitants and through them portray the city as a whole. Almost a travel guide with a difference. We meet haughty Jim Williams a self made millionaire antique dealer, his next-door neighbour Lee Adler, a man though high-society is not quite as revered as he pretends to be. We enter the world of exclusive clubs, yacht clubs, golf clubs, bridge parties; everything in my mind that America's Deep South is all about. Jim Williams' Christmas party being the social highlight of the year.
We meet others too, less far up the social scale: Danny Hansford, Jim Williams' borderline psychotic handyman, partial transsexual and drag queen Chablis, a woman with a filthy mouth and some scary behaviour. Then there's Jim Odem, a highly untrustworthy loveable rogue with a succession of piano bars.
By exploring Savannah from all these angles, we see the city through a kaleidoscope lens and it is beautiful and intriguing and deep. It makes Savannah in my mind as much a must see destination as New York or Boston. I could feel the heat and hear the crickets chirping, I wanted to be there.
Then, something happens. John gets a phonecall from Chablis. Danny Hansford has been shot and Jim Williams arrested for murder. A case of being in the right place at the right time for journalist Berendt, he begins to cover the trial for his book, as Savannah society recoils from the seedy underbelly on its very doorstep.
The story becomes very Gothic in tone as we meet Minerva, a voodoo priestess...
Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil is a really evocative book and one which is compelling to read but I have to question certain aspects. Though Jim Williams was a real person, some other names are changed and I have to question the veracity of some of Berendt's past conversations as I query his ability to recall all of them in minute detail. In some respects then this is rather a blend of fact and fictionalised summation rather than straight up non fiction. In spite of this it was nominated for several non-fiction awards including the Pulitzer.
The book spent a record 216 weeks in the New York Times Bestseller List and I think this is richly deserved. A film was later made by Clint Eastwood in which Chablis played herself, and I'm sure I will watch it sometime.
I recommend reading it in a Southern accent with a mint julep by your side. 9/10