Book Review: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Image from Amazon.com

When I first started reading this book, I was somewhat enamored. I just didn’t expect it to be so engaging and there was a competent playfulness that I was really enjoying. But as I read further and further, I got a tad bored. In a book that often feels more like vignettes than a novel (true crime novel, I guess), I was done with the same ol’ characters and story and I wanted it to end so I could stand back and admire what I had just read. Instead, it kept going, slowly sucking the enjoyment out of it. But that makes it sound all bad, and certainly it was not.

I am trying not to buy any new books this year. I have plenty of books on my shelves that I still need to read. However, I keep finding excuses to buy new books and shoehorn them in on my TBR. I was vacationing with a friend in Beaufort, South Carolina when we took a day trip to Savannah. Now, it was actually so hot that we couldn’t really enjoy our day to the fullest, but I was still blown away by Savannah. The town is not at all my speed for living, but for visiting: I felt like I had either stepped back in time or onto a movie set. Savannah looks, feels and is surprising at every turn and I will be returning to plumb it more thoroughly. As for that one scorching day, we managed—per my request—to find a bookstore open on a Sunday afternoon, E. Shaver. I wandered the meandering bookstore (it’s a great one) before landing at their desk. I said, “I have a strange question and a predictable question. First, do you have any socks?” (I was having a wardrobe malfunction that was giving me a blister,) “and second, where are your copies of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil?” The first question was followed by a hobble through the store with a bookseller guide where we found—to both of our surprise—a basket of bibliophile socks. As for the second question, it was addressed first when the gal who was closest to me reached behind her practically without even looking to a long row of copies: “Hardback or paperback?”

Image credit goes to me, 2022

I was not the first one to buy Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil while in Savannah. I won’t be the last.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt is a famous book. (It was a New York Times best-seller for a very long run.) It was already in my TBR (though later I realized that it might have been there because someone gave me a copy, ahem) and on my radar, so when my friend suggested reading it to better acquaint myself with Savannah and coastal SC, I went ahead and took that bait. It is non-fiction, basically, or a non-fiction novel, a sort of frank, wide-eyed and laid back foray into a curious, almost fantastical world. These are real people (some names changed to protect identity), real places, and real events. Berendt says that he fictionalized or exaggerated himself until about half-way through the book. Perhaps related, I don’t know, but it is widely known that the sequence of events have been changed. Still, overwhelmingly nonfiction (although some of the more disparaged characters have said otherwise), just written in novel form.

Really, the book is about Savannah and its people. It contains quite a bit of history and a whole lot of character. Savannah breathes in the pages of the book. The actual plot is the coming to town of a New York City writer (the POV narrator, Berendt himself with some embellishment), his inserting himself into Savannah society, and all that he discovers which lands him in the middle of a series of murder trials. People also claim the book is about the murder of a male prostitute by one of the wealthy, social elite of Savannah. It’s both, but it’s mostly, as I said, about Savannah herself. And Berendt, while clearly in love with the place and people, really digs up some slime with the silt. I couldn’t help but wonder if Savannahians would be proud of the way they are portrayed in this book. Despite the racist and classist and sexist underbelly as well as all the drugs, sex, and voodoo grit, I think it entirely possible they are happy with it. (They definitely seem to use it in tourism, unlike, say, Scranton, PA and The Office.) I mean, Savannah’s glamour is completely of the strange and the people seem to wallow in it. Happily. Still, many have accused Berendt of embellishing (and making up) a whole lot more than he claims he did, which could result from either bad reporting or from people who are irritated that their dirty laundry has been aired on the best-sellers’ list. Or it’s the nature of nonfiction novels. I’m not going to spend more time picking apart the he-said, she-said of it.

Yes, it is gritty and shady and somewhat of an expose, and yes, it does go on too long from where I sat, and yes, I find voodoo something to cut a wide berth around, but I liked my time in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, for better or just a little worse. It was pretty fascinating and well-written (if a tad unconventional) and I would recommend it, especially if you are going to be visiting coastal South Carolina or Georgia, and especially Savannah. It would be one of those perfect destination reads, which I am certainly not the first to discover. I would also recommend it for something a little different and slightly historical (like the 90s) for people who enjoy true crime. I believe that’s actually a lot of people, as a know a number of true crime aficionados myself.

MOVIE (1997)

Image from IMDB.com

I hadn’t realized this star-studded movie exists because I was a teenager at the time of Midnight’s popularity and also this movie’s release. These were not the sort of things that seniors in high school were reading or watching. It was probably really big for the young-adult-to-middle-age group. Starring John Cusack and Kevin Spacey as well as Jude Law and some others you might recognize, the movie no doubt drew an audience but also took great liberties with the story. It has some of the bones of the story, but it is sped up (like warp speed on the timeline) and streamlined so that it is sort of recognizable. It is fun to put places and faces on the characters and, well, I was happy to kind of get a few things straight (since I had mixed up three of the male characters repeatedly), but I did find the movie to be, well, blurry (thanks Prime), oddly acted, and not really of the same tone as the book. It almost felt spoofy and missed the real presence of Savannah in all but a drive-by. It’s a fine movie to watch, interesting after the book, but more of a rough adaptation than a recreation. Fun fact: The Lady Chablis is played by the Lady Chablis, and it (along with the book) made her famous.

QUOTES

“’You mustn’t be taken in by the moonlight and magnolias. There’s more to Savannah than that. Things can get very murky.’ Williams stroked his cat and tapped another ask into the ashtray” (p10).

“I would inquire, observe, and poke around whenever my curiosity led me or wherever I was invited. I would presume nothing. I would take notes” (p36).

“People think you’re writing an expose about Savannah, so they’re a little wary of you. You don’t need to fret about that, though. Secretly they all hope you’ll put them in your book” (p48).

“Money is ammunition, and as long as I have some I’ll use it” (p296).

“I left Mercer House that afternoon with the uncomfortable feeling that I knew more than I wanted to know” (p348).

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