Title: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt
Motivation: A review of Mr. Berendt’s most recent book on Venice, which is on the rota for later this year.
Completed: June 16, 2012 (#39)
Recommendation: A contemporary classic—not to be missed.
How rare it is to come across a work of non-fiction that merits one’s unreserved praise. (For the record—and there has been much confusion on this point—Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is not a work of fiction, although Mr. Berendt admits to some minor chronological liberties and some fictionalization of identities to protect the innocent.)
The fact that the denizens of Mr. Berendt’s Savannah actually exist (or, in some cases, existed) is delightful to contemplate and restores one’s faith that the world’s stage still contains at least a few wonderfully eccentric characters:
Williams was gaining stature in Savannah, to the irritation of certain blue bloods. “How does it feel to be nouveau riche?” he was asked on one occasion. “It’s the riche that counts,” Williams answered. Having said that, he bought Mercer House.
We have a saying: If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is, ‘What’s your business?’ In Macon they ask, ‘Where do you go to church?’ In Augusta they ask your grandmother’s maiden name. But in Savannah the first question people ask you is ‘What would you like to drink?’”
Sometimes, to relieve the boredom, Luther anesthetized ordinary house flies and glued lengths of thread to their backs. When the flies awoke, they flew around trailing the threads behind them. “It makes them easier to catch,” he said. On occasion, Luther walked through downtown Savannah holding a dozen or more threads in his hand, each a different color. Some people walked dogs; Luther walked flies.
Darlene lit a cigarette. “I suppose you heard about the armed robbery at the Green Parrot restaurant last week?” “Uh-huh.” “Moon did it.” “Oh, come on!” said Joe. “Are you sure about that?” “Positive.” “But wait a minute,” said Joe. “How could you know it was Moon? They haven’t caught the robber yet.” “I know,” said Darlene. “I drove the getaway car.”
And, at the pinnacle of Mr. Berendt’s unforgettable pantheon, the ineffable Lady Chablis:
“I dance, I do lip sync, and I emcee,” she said. “**** like that. My mama got the name Chablis off a wine bottle. She didn’t think it up for me though. It was supposed to be for my sister. Mama got pregnant when I was sixteen, and she wanted a little girl. She was gonna name her La Quinta Chablis, but then she had a miscarriage, and I said, ‘Ooooo, Chablis. That’s nice. I like that name.’ And Mama said, ‘Then take it, baby. Just call yourself Chablis from now on.’ So ever since then, I’ve been Chablis.” “A cool white wine for a cool black girl,” I said. “Y-e-e-e-s, child!” “What was your name before that?” I asked. “Frank,” she said.
Most will be familiar with Clint Eastwood’s excellent film, starring Kevin Spacey as Jim Williams, the Savannah antiquarian cum accused murderer, so let us whet your appetite with this snippet from an interview with Mr. Berendt on the novel’s unexpected success: