My parents bought me a copy of this book on a trip to Savannah because I’m pretty sure they won’t let you out of the city without purchasing a copy. I had read it back in high school, but really couldn’t recall anything about it, so I stuck it on the shelf. I decided on taking another gander at it after I saw that they were reading it on my favorite podcast Literary Disco. (Rider Stong a la Shawn Hunter and two friends talk about books and give each other a hard time. It. Is. Bliss. I like to pretend that Shawn finally overcame his brooding wrong-side-of-the-tracks upbringing and made something of himself. But I digress.)
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is considered in some circles to be a non-fiction novel. That may seem a little oxymoronic, but it reads as if it is fiction. Embarrassing confession: I honestly didn’t realize it was non-fiction until I looked at the back of the book after reading the whole dang thing! The way that the story is woven together, along with the riveting details and unbelievable characters, just seem too fantastic to be true. As a southerner I guess I should have known better but Berendt had me along for the ride.
John Berendt is a character in his own tale, a New Yorker who comes to the south for a respite in the late 70s, and is pulled in to this jewel of the south. Though at first an observer and an outsider, he is able to move through the different social circles with ease and relates the history of the city, and its current inhabitants, with colorful detail. Though he has admitted that some characters are amalgamations of a few real life folks, a brief googling will confirm that some of the most shocking and bizarre characters existed just as described. For example, Lady Chablis, a drag queen who claims Berendt as her driver, not only is real, but even played herself in the film adaptation. It is a case of life imitating art, imitating life. Or something.
If all this wasn’t enough, one of the main and most compelling characters is pulled into a murder trial, which has rippling effects for the entire city and its populace. Jim Williams is a nouveau rich antiques dealer, and is famous for throwing an annual Christmas party as sort of a modern day Gatsby. Berendt is obviously not an impartial witness, but he does his best to relate the facts as they unfold so that the reader really is left with having to draw their own conclusions.
I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did, but it was fun and manages to revere the south without lampooning it, which I really appreciate. If you like small town gossip and want to know what the south can be like, I recommend this read.