Jake's Reviews > Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
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Sep 01, 11

bookshelves: travel, mystery, sociology
Read in August, 2011

"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" is ostensibly about the macabre truths that lie behind Savannah's gentile facade. As you might expect, these are of a distinctly Gothic nature. Imagine a travel guide written by Tennessee Williams. We are invited to marvel at some familiar grotesques: the homosexual in a smoking jacket, the socialite drunk at noon, the young hustler with a Red Camaro, the outrageous trannie, the witch doctor. All of this is presented with a light touch, even as the parade of anecdotes transitions to an expose of a celebrated murder case. It makes for a fun read, and it's easy to see why this book reinvented the Savannah tourist scene and stayed on the best seller list for five straight years.

But as with Capote's "In Cold Blood", it's interesting to explore exactly where this memoir diverges from the truth- what lies hidden behind the narrator's engaging facade? Berendt comes across as a good-natured everyman, a writer newly settled in town, just taking a look around. Of course, he was a good deal more than that: the famous ex-editor of New York Magazine, and more importantly, perhaps, a gay man. This background explains his easy entree into the life of Jim Williams, the anti-hero of the book. Rich, handsome, secretive, and gay- a man not too dissimilar from the narrator:
He was tall, about fifty, with darkly handsome, almost sinister features: a neatly trimmed mustache, hair turning sliver at the temples, and eyes so black they were like the tinted windows of a sleek limousine - he could see out, but you couldn't see in. We were sitting in the living room of his Victorian house. It was a mansion, really, with fifteen-foot ceilings and large, well-proportioned rooms. A graceful spiral stairway rose from the center hall toward a domed skylight. There was a ballroom on the second floor. It was Mercer House, one of the last of Savannah's great houses still in private hands. Together with the walled garden and the carriage house in back, it occupied an entire city block. If Mercer House was not quite the biggest private house in Savannah, it was certainly the most grandly furnished.
Much has been written about Berendt's many elisions and emendations of the strict truth: the way he rearranged the timeline of the murder at the center of the book to narrate it in the first person, the "degaying" of the murder victim, the changing of names and invention of composite characters. This is all worth thinking about, but I'm more interested in a different class of distortions: what hidden biases does a rich, gay northerner bring to a description of the South?

First, there is the previously mentioned delight in the grotesque. This is a tendency of all northern authors to reduce people in the South to types. Berendt does some of this, and while the reduction makes for good story-telling, you can't help but wonder what kind of truth it leaves out of the picture. Second, as a white northerner, the author has little access to the Black culture of the city- and apart from a short chapter about a Black cotillion, the only Black faces we see in the story are trannies, witch doctors, and servants. This probably misses some deeper truths about the city. Finally, as a wealthy gay man, Berendt's sympathies seem clearly biased towards Jim Williams, with whom he shares more than a little in common (Berendt currently lives in a mansion on the Upper West Side decked out not-too-different than Williams' house in Savannah.) How does this change his story? I'm not sure- but it would probably be better if he addressed it himself when he was writing it.

So what are we to make of all of this? Capote's "In Cold Blood", despite its flaws and half-truths, told a profound story of human nature and the depths to which people can sink. "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" tells an entertaining story about the degree to which you can beat a murder rap if you have a house filled with a couple of million dollars worth of antiques. That doesn't mean it's not worth your time: it's just not as important a book as its fame would suggest.
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