Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story
By John Berendt
Summary: Voodoo. Decadent socialites packing Lugars. Cotillions. With towns like Savannah, Georgia, who needs Fellini? Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil takes two narrative strands–each worthy of its own book–and weaves them together to make a single fascinating tale. The first is author John Berendt’s loving depiction of the characters and rascals that prowled Savannah in the eight years it was his home-away-from-home. “Eccentrics thrive in Savannah,” he writes, and proves the point by introducing Luther Diggers, a thwarted inventor who just might be plotting to poison the town’s water supply; Joe Odom, a jovial jackleg lawyer and squatter nonpareil; and, most memorably, the Lady Chablis, whom you really should meet for yourself. Then, on May 2, 1981, the book’s second story line commences, when Jim Williams, a wealthy antique dealer and Savannah’s host with the most, kills his “friend” Danny Hansford. (If those quotes make you suspect something, you should.) Was it self-defense, as Williams claimed–or murder? The book sketches four separate trials, during which the dark side of this genteel party town is well and truly plumbed.
Source: I purchased a paperback
I am completely in the minority, but I did not enjoy this book at all.
The book has been recommended to me on numerous occasions and the mix of true story and descriptive writing had my expectations rather high. The title seemed unique enough to lead me to believe it would be compelling true crime and travelogue at the same time. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but I do enjoy the occasional true crime story or compelling and well written trip through an interesting setting.
I feel like part of my dislike of the book is personal because, having lived in Georgia twice and some surrounding southern states, I do not like Georgia very much. It is by far my least favorite southern state. More importantly, the reasons why are the same reasons other people find it charming and are a large part of the entire backdrop of the novel. I don’t think it’s cute to have segregated towns or attitudes. It’s super uncomfortable and I’ve only ever felt that way IN Georgia. It’s not just backwoods or small towns or out of the way places that you’d expect. It’s in sophisticated places in GA, like Atlanta and Savannah and I think that’s what makes it so much more uncomfortable . I also hate that polite southern drawl, since it’s usually even more pronounced when someone pretending to be more important than he or she really is. I’ve met way too many Georgians who do just that, and some of them are exactly like that in this book. It’s not charming to me whatsoever. And because all of these things are literally what happens in Savannah in the book, I think that’s a large part of why I didn’t enjoy it. Maybe other people felt like the were getting a glimpse into what seems like such an interesting place, but I just feel exhausted by everyone in that tiny awful little bubble. (I do love many Georgians, so I’m by no means saying I don’t like everyone from GA. I’m just saying these types of people are ones I cannot stand and that’s essentially everyone in the book.)
For the sake of transparency, I’ll admit that I do claim Charleston as my hometown (though it’s just where I grew up partially since I’m a military brat) and Charleston IS the sworn enemy/sister city of Savannah. Of course I prefer Charleston.
Aside from my personal feelings about the setting, the writing was my next problem. The beginning drew me in because it was descriptive and I wanted to get to know everyone better, but then it slowly started to feel like I never ending magazine article that I was rapidly losing interest in. I started to feel like “I get it, I get that this interaction is happening, what on earth is the point?” Showing multiple examples of interactions doesn’t equal character development and I think that’s what the author was essentially lacking.
Finally, after I almost gave up on the book, Part One ended and the murder occurred. Finally, we were getting to the good stuff. Unfortunately, all of that detail I was getting in Part One wasn’t nearly as present in Part Two. I felt like it was clear that the author was not privy to a lot of information and could only go off of speculation and what he was able to hear and witness in the courtroom, up to his own interpretation. And that’s probably true for most true crime authors, so I am only noting that it was glaringly obvious and I felt like the whole book should’ve been better organized so as not to appear so weak in that area.
I felt like, despite the details, I didn’t really know anyone. None of them were compelling and three dimensional, which is funny to say because they were actual people and not fictional characters. It was a long book of “and then this happened” type of scenarios that I just don’t think we’re balanced and descriptive in a way that made it compelling. Perhaps the characters themselves truly were one dimensional or fake, especially in front of the author, and that’s why they are lacking dimension in the book, which is probably the case, but I feel like there could’ve been a better way to dramatize the novel in order to make it more hard hitting and interesting.
I don’t understand why this book is so highly praised.