Stacie's Reviews > Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
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's review
Jul 06, 2009

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, books-that-became-movies

When I was looking up this book at the library, I was surprised to see it was in the non-fiction section. I had seen the movie (which I vaguely remember) and wanted to read the book for some time, but never had any clue it was a true story. Being a lover of non-fiction, it was a pleasant surprise.

The story takes place within the confines of the city of Savannah, a city lost in time, where Southern hospitality and Victorian architecture can be seen from every street corner. A place where the social column takes precedence over world news, and the most important day of the year is the Saturday of the Georgia-Florida football game.

John Berendt, a New York journalist, transplants himself in Savannah, which would have been a culture shock to anyone else, but he seems to take it in stride. In his eight years there, he uncovers many of Savannah’s well-hidden (and not-so-well-hidden) secrets, giving the town a vibrancy that mostly went unnoticed prior to the release of this book.

One of Berendt’s many friends made in Savannah, Joe Odom is a piano-playing, squatting entrepreneur who is often in financial and legal trouble. But his charisma and Southern charm make him a lovable character. Another of Berendt’s friends is Jim Williams, a successful antiques dealer and a member of the higher echelon of Savannah’s social circles. He hosts the party of the year at the Mercer House, his privately owned Victorian mansion.

The lovely backdrop of Savannah, with its architecture and rich history, is perfectly contrasted by the events and characters introduced by Berendt. The contrast gives the story an almost surreal feeling, but in reality the inconsistencies of life catch up with the citizens of Savannah in the oldest and most brutal manner: murder.

Jim Williams is arrested for shooting his employee and lover, a 21-year-old troubled boy known for prostituting himself in one of the many town squares. Many facts about Savannah’s most popular host unfold throughout the novel. Berendt gets below the surface, not just with Williams, but with many of the other colorful individuals in Savannah. At times these characters seem too out there to be true.

Even Joe Odom comments:

So now we have a murder in a big mansion. Goddamn! Well, let’s see where that puts us. We’ve got a weirdo bug specialist slinking around town with a bottle of deadly poison. We’ve got a nigger drag queen, an old man who walks an imaginary dog, and now a faggot murder case. My friend, you are getting me and Mandy into one hell of a movie.

Odom hits it right on the nose. But he also demonstrates one of the many themes of the book too. While conserving Savannah’s elegance by blocking progress, they also kept many of the prejudices so prevalent in the early part of the 20th century and before. Prejudices not just toward gays and blacks, but also toward each other. It is amazing how people have lived together in this town for decades, and their families had been there for generations, yet they really didn’t know each other past the parties or the dresses or the mentions in the society column.

And then there’s Chablis. Probably the most entertaining character in the novel, Chablis is a black drag queen who fancies young blonde men. More than a drag queen, actually, she lives her life as a woman, receiving estrogen shots to give her a more womanly look. The friendship that blossoms between Chablis and Berendt is priceless and adds a fresh perspective to the book.

Another mysterious woman in Midnight is the voodoo witch Minerva. Her services are retained by Williams to assist with his murder trials. (Notice the plurality: Williams held the record for the most times a person’s ever been tried for the same murder, four.) Minerva adds yet another element of Southern history with her spells and conversations with the dead.

Despite the town’s obvious downfalls, Berendt does an excellent job of portraying the strength of the town and its ability to let bygones be bygones for a good party and a drop of Marnier.

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Maryka One of my all-time favorites, good for multiple reads! There's also a good documentary, in which you get to meet the real people-Miss Chablis, the imaginary-dog walker, the elderly lady piano player and all.

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