Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Berendt)

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil 
John Berendt, 1994
Knopf Doubleday
386 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780679751526

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 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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—December 5, 1939
Where—Syracuse, New York, USA
Education—A.B., Harvard
Awards—Southern Book Award for General Nonfiction, 1994;
  Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction, 1995
Currently—lives in New York, New York

"I like crazy people," John Berendt once told an interviewer for The Independent. "I encourage them, they make good copy."

They do indeed, if Berendt is writing about them. His first book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which Berendt has called "a nonfiction novel," could be classified as a true crime story, or a travelogue, but it's also an absorbing collection of crazy people, cranks, eccentrics and oddballs, whose lives Berendt chronicles with as much detail as he devotes to murder suspect Jim Williams, ostensibly his main character.

As readers and critics have noted, the true "main character" of Midnight in the Garden is the city of Savannah, Ga., which enjoyed a tremendous boost in tourism as a result of what Savannahians now refer to simply as "the book."

Berendt started visiting Savannah in the early 1980s, flying in from New York, where he worked as a writer at Esquire. "All I did the first year," he later said in the London Daily Telegraph, "was take notes and interview, because I knew, the longer I was there, the less strange the whole thing would seem."

For Berendt, who once edited New York magazine, Savannah may have seemed strange at first, but in a fascinating way. As he explained in an Entertainment Weekly interview, "People in Savannah don't say, 'Before leaving the room, Mrs. Jones put on her coat.' Instead, they say, 'Before leaving the room, Mrs. Jones put on the coat that her third husband gave her before he shot himself in the head.'"

After gathering facts, gossiping with the locals and getting to know the city, Berendt shaped his experiences into a work Kirkus Reviews called "stylish, brilliant, hilarious, and coolhearted." Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil spent a record-setting four years on the New York Times bestseller list and sold 2.7 million copies in hardcover.

Not everyone adored it, however. In a controversy that perhaps anticipated author James Frey's troubles in the publishing world, some journalists wondered whether Berendt's embellishments were too numerous and substantial for the book to hold up as nonfiction. The book included an author's note explaining that Berendt changed the sequence of some events in the narrative.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil became a fixture on bestseller lists and was made into a movie directed by Clint Eastwood. Some of the real people profiled in the book became minor celebrities in their own right—most notably Berendt's drag-queen friend Lady Chablis, who played herself in the movie and later published an autobiography.

Readers wondered what Berendt would do for an encore, but the author was relatively slow to oblige them. It wasn't until more than ten years after the publication of his first book that Berendt released The City of Falling Angels, a portrait of Venice as experienced not by tourists, but by its year-round residents, who turn out to be as eccentric and weirdly compelling as the Savannahians of Midnight in the Garden. ("The man whose palazzo features three space suits and a stuffed monkey is par for the course," noted Janet Maslin in the New York Times Book Review.)

Though some critics thought Berendt's second book lacked the narrative pull of his first, many agreed that, as Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley put it, "The story of the Fenice fire and its aftermath is exceptionally interesting, the cast of characters is suitably various and flamboyant, and Berendt's prose, now as then, is precise, evocative and witty."

As Ann Godoff, Berendt's editor (first at Random House and now at Penguin Press), explained it, "By no means is this the same book. But nobody else could have written them both."

From a 2005 Barnes & Noble interview:

• I never use an alarm clock. I have an internal mechanism that wakes me up when I want to wake up. I'm not sure how I developed this ability, or what its significance is. Anyhow, I always fall asleep secure in the knowledge that I will wake up within ten minutes of the desired time. And I always do.

• When I'm writing, I like to gain distance from my work so I can tell how it will strike a reader who is seeing it for the first time. I do this through a trick I devised while I was living in Savannah writing Midnight—I would call my apartment in New York, the answering machine would pick up, I'd read the page of text I'd just written, then I'd hang up. A minute later, I'd call my apartment again and listen to the "message." Hearing my own voice reading the page over the phone—my voice having traveled 1800 miles (900 each way )—gave me just the detached perspective I needed.

• On occasion, while I was working on Falling Angels, I used the same technique, ridiculous though it may sound; in this case the calls were from Venice to New York rather than from Savannah. Gay Talese says he achieves a similar detachment by tacking pages to the opposite wall and then reading them through binoculars. Whatever works."

• I had an early start in the world of books. I was hired at the age of fourteen as a stock boy at the Economy Book Store in downtown Syracuse. It was my first job. I worked after school every day for four hours and made ten dollars a week."

• I stay fit by exercising daily on a treadmill or a stationary bicycle for close to an hour. I'd be bored out of my mind doing this if it weren't for the fact that I watch movies at the same time. That way, time flies. I call it my Treadmill and Bicycle Film Festival. I've found that if I'm watching a thriller, my pace ratchets up a notch."

• My number-one hobby, my preferred means of unwinding, and my most often-used route of escape are all the same: reading. Nothing takes me out of myself faster or more completely than a good read. It relieves stress, lifts me out of a funk, and makes me feel I'm doing something worthwhile.

When asked what book most influenced his life as a writer, he answered:

I could cite any number of great classics that, when I first read them, introduced me to the excitement of books, but the book that meant the most to me is not at all well known and is now out of print.

It's Small World a novel published in 1951 by Simon & Schuster. The story concerns a family of four living in upstate New York. It's charming and beautifully written. Carol Deschere, the athor, happens to be my mother, and the family depicted in her novel closely resembles our own. The book sold about 2,000 copies and, although my mother never wrote another book, Small World was a life-changing experience for me, because in addition to making me enormously proud of her, it showed me for the first time how real life could be transformed into words and stories and published in a book for all to read. It also planted the first seed in my mind that I might become a writer one day. (From Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
Mr. Berendt's writing is elegant and wickedly funny, and his eye for telling details is superb.... Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil might be the first true-crime book that makes the reader want to call a travel agent and book a bed and breakfast for an extended weekend at the scene of the crime.
Glenna Whitley - New York Times

After discovering in the early 1980s that a super-saver fare to Savannah, Ga., cost the same as an entree in a nouvelle Manhattan restaurant, Esquire columnist Berendt spent the next eight years flitting between Savannah and New York City. The result is this collection of smart, sympathetic observations about his colorful Southern neighbors, including a jazz-playing real estate shark; a sexually adventurous art student; the Lady Chablis (' "What was your name before that?" I asked. "Frank," she said.' "); the gossipy Married Woman's Card Club; and an assortment of aging Southern belles. The book is also about the wealthy international antiques dealer Jim Williams, who played an active role in the historic city's restoration—and would also be tried four times for the 1981 shooting death of 21-year-old Danny Handsford, his high-energy, self-destructive house helper. The Williams trials—he died in 1990 of a heart attack at age 59—are lively matches between dueling attorneys fought with shifting evidence, and they serve as both theme and anchor to Berendt's illuminating and captivating travelogue.
Publishers Weekly

It's difficult to categorize this book. On one level, it is a travelogue, recounting former New York magazine editor Berendt's eight years in Savannah, Georgia, that beautifully preserved hothouse of the South where eccentric characters like black drag queen Lady Chablis and charming con man Joe Odom blossom in rich profusion. It is also a true-crime tale, the saga of antiques dealer Jim Williams whose 1981 shooting of his sometime lover Danny Hansford in the historic Mercer House obsesses Savannah denizens; they watch as Williams endures four trials and is eventually acquitted, only to die of a heart attack a few months later, haunted (some say) by Hansford's vengeful ghost. Although non-fiction, Berendt's book reads like a novel (he admits he has taken 'certain storytelling liberties'), and this reviewer sometimes wondered where the truth ends and the fiction begins. Still, this entertaining book will appeal to many readers. —Wilda Williams
Library Journal

Perhaps one of the things that make this nonfiction work unique is that its plot centers on a murder, but Berendt takes his sweet time getting around to that fact, allowing the reader to be as surprised as he must have been watching the events unfold. Midnight is a solidly rewarding read. —Martha Schoolman

Steamy Savannah—and the almost unbelievable assortment of colorful eccentrics that the city seems to nurture—are minutely and wittily observed here. In the early 1980's, Berendt (former editor of New York magazine) realized that for the price of a nouvelle cuisine meal, he could fly to just about any city in the U.S. that intrigued him. In the course of these travels, he fell under the spell of Savannah, and moved there for eight years. Central to his story here is his acquaintance with Jim Williams, a Gatsby-like, newly moneyed antiques dealer, and Williams's sometime lover Danny Hansford, a 'walking streak of sex'—a volatile, dangerous young hustler whose fatal shooting by Williams obsesses the city.

Other notable characters include Chablis, a show-stealing black drag queen; Joe Odom, cheerfully amoral impresario and restaurateur; Luther Driggers, inventor of the flea collar, who likes it to be known that he has a supply of poison so lethal that he could wipe out every person in the city if he chose to slip it into the water supply; and Minerva, a black occultist who works with roots and whom Williams hires to help deal with what the antiques dealer believes to be Hansford's vengeful ghost.

Showing a talent for penetrating any social barrier, Berendt gets himself invited to the tony Married Women's Card Club; the rigidly proper Black Debutantes' Ball (which Chablis crashes); the inner sanctum of power-lawyer Sonny Seiler; and one of Williams' fabled Christmas parties (the one for a mixed group; the author opts out of the following evening's 'bachelors-only' feast). The imprisonment and trial of Williams, and his surprising fate, form the narrative thread that stitches together this crazy-quilt of oddballs, poseurs, snobs, sorceresses, and outlaws. Stylish, brilliant, hilarious, and coolhearted.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. John Berendt describes Savannah as inward-turning, a "semitropical terrarium" (p. 28). What effect does this characteristic have on the life of the city and of its inhabitants? In what ways does Savannah differ from other cities or communities you know?

2. Eccentrics thrive in Berendt's Savannah. Does this mean that the people of Savannah are unusually tolerant? In what ways are they tolerant, and in what instances do they prove to be intolerant? How tolerant are they when it comes to the crossing of sexual, racial, or class lines?

3. Do you think that people would put up with Joe Odom and his countless misdemeanors in a city with a different character from Savannah? Might he end up in jail if he lived somewhere else?

4. How would you describe Jim Williams's character? Do you find him amusing? Sinister? How much sympathy do you have for him? Reading the book, did you hope for him to be acquitted? Why, or why not?

5. Some of Jim Williams' acquaintances think that the Nazi flag episode was insignificant; others do not. "Nazi symbols are not totally bereft of meaning, " says one man. "They still carry a very clear message, even if they're displayed under the guise of `historic relics'" (p. 178). Do you believe that Williams was being deliberately offensive when he displayed this flag? If so, why?

6. There was a tacit acceptance in Savannah of Jim Williams's homosexuality before the murder. How would you describe the shift in climate after the murder? Were people really surprised to hear about Williams's sexual practices? How did they adjust their attitudes?

7. After everything you have heard about Lee Adler, do you goalong with the general opinion people have of him in Savannah? Do you think that the reservations so many people hold about him spring from the fact that he is Jewish? Would his actions and behavior be more good-humoredly accepted if he did not happen to be Jewish?

8. Do you think that Danny's actions and violent scenes indicate that he was following a suicidal course? What were his real feelings towards Jim Williams? What was he trying to get out of him?

9. Is Chablis as frivolous a person as she likes to present herself as being? What does her argument with Burt at the nightclub tell you about her character?

10. Talking about the Oglethorpe Club types, Jim Williams says "When people like that see somebody like me, who's never joined their silly pecking order and who's taken great risks and succeeded, they loathe that person. I have felt it many times" (p. 237). Do you think that Williams is correct?

11. Black and white people's lives "are more intermingled here than in New York, " Berendt has said (USA Today). "I love the banter back and forth among whites and blacks. They don't mix socially that much, but there's a civility that's remarkable" (Washington Post). Do you find that relations between the races in the Savannah that Berendt describes are healthier, or less healthy, than in other parts of America? What might the high black crime rate indicate about the city?

12. What does the black debutante ball tell you about the black community—or at least that part of the black community—in Savannah? Why is Chablis so scornful of the ball and the people there? Do you sympathize with her feelings?

13. At the St. Patrick's Day parade, the narrator observes that the wagon following the Confederate marchers contained "a blue-clad Union soldier sprawled motionless on the floor of the wagon. It was a chilling tableau, the more so because it was meant to be surreptitious" (p. 257). What does this say about attitudes in Savannah? Does the scene indicate that the passions roused by the Civil War are still alive there? Why did the marchers keep the tableau surreptitious?

14. What do you think the narrator's attitude is toward the voodoo that is practiced on Williams's behalf? Does he imply that it is of any value? How would you describe Minerva? Is she the sort of person you would expect to be practicing voodoo?

15. After the trial, Minerva says "I saw it all: The boy fussed at him that night. Mr. Jim got angry and shot him. He lied to me, and he lied to the court" (p. 380). Do you concur with Minerva's scenario?

16. How would you describe Savannah's feelings to tradition and to the past? Are these feelings characteristic of the South in general? How do they differ from those in other parts of the country?

17. One reader from Georgia has said of Berendt, "I think he captured what it is to be Southern. He captured the not-talked-about way of life" (USA Today). If this is true, what would you say it is to be Southern? What does the South Berendt describes represent? Does it differ from stereotypes about the South?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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