The first time I read this book, I’m not entirely sure I realized it was non-fiction until after I finished. Half of me wants to believe that the characters in this book can’t possibly be real, but part of me hopes that they are as colorful as Berendt explains them to be. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is an exposé of Savannah, Georgia during the early 1980s. Reporter/writer John Berendt happened upon Savannah during a weekend trip and decided to split his time between New York City and Savannah. Over a period of eight years, Berendt got to know many of the Savannahian citizens as well as their habits, quirks, and deep dark secrets.
The book is divided into two parts—the first half focuses mostly on different people Berendt befriends during his stay in Savannah and the second half of the book turns into a true crime murder mystery as one of the lead characters, Jim Williams, is accused of murder and has a series of trials. Because this was a re-read for me and I’ve seen the movie several times (it is super boring by the way), I wasn’t as interested in William’s case this time around. Sure it is fascinating and I think you’ll be pulled into the details, but what I got out of my second reading was just how dynamic the citizens of Savannah truly are.
Some of my favorites are Luther Driggers whose hobbies include carrying flies around on string and threatening to poison all of Savannah if he has a bad day; Joe Odem who everyone loves despite the fact that he probably owes everyone a little money here and there; Jim Williams who throws the most luxurious parties in his restored house filled with expensive antiques. And of course, Williams is the central character of the book who causes a stir in Savannah when it becomes known during his murder trial that he is a homosexual–something the refined upper class wasn’t quite sure how to handle in the early 80s. My favorite character, is hands down The Lady Chablis. Chablis is a transsexual drag queen who meets Berendt after receiving her monthly shot of horomones. You never know what’s going to come out of Chablis’s mouth and she loves ruffling feathers everywhere she goes.
One thing I noticed in my reading this time was how much race and sexuality were at the forefront of the story. Everything is very black and white for the Savannahians and I’ll admit that reading some of the passages made me a little squeamish because of the backwardness of their beliefs. From what Berendt notes, desegregation was actually a very smooth process for Savannahians during the 1960s. There were no major protests and the whites and blacks had gotten along fine for decades before desegregation. Berendt implies that even though there was no big protest or rebellion or outcry, it is understood that both will have their own societies and there is no need for real mixture between the two races. Now, this book was written 15 years ago and set almost 25 years ago, so I can only hope that things are a little more progressive now.
Do I recommend the book? Without very many reservations. I haven’t met anyone who read this book and didn’t like it. Simply put the characters are incredibly vibrant and memorable, and that alone makes this a worthwhile read. It’s the perfect armchair traveler book and has me itching to make road trip plans out to Savannah. I loved the atmosphere–the southern gentility and charm, a little old world mixed with the new world, and the dark brooding tone of the second half of the novel. Berendt and Williams dabble in a little hoodoo with a woman named Minerva when Williams’ murder trials don’t seem to be going as planned. All of these things combined with Berendt’s rich storytelling capabilities create an exciting and entertaining read. I didn’t record my original thoughts on the book, but I think my initial rating probably would have been 4.5 out of 5.
Have you ever read a non-fiction book that felt like reading fiction? Was there a book you read that made you want to visit that locale immediately?
And in case you’re curious, yes, I’ve read The City of Fallen Angels as well.