Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil - John Berendt

Title: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Author: John Berendt
Published: 1994 Pages: 388
Genre: Non-Fiction/True Crime
Rating: 4/5

The first time I read this book, I’m not entirely sure I realized it was non-fiction until after I finished. Half of me wants to believe that the characters in this book can’t possibly be real, but part of me hopes that they are as colorful as Berendt explains them to be. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is an exposé of Savannah, Georgia during the early 1980s. Reporter/writer John Berendt happened upon Savannah during a weekend trip and decided to split his time between New York City and Savannah. Over a period of eight years, Berendt got to know many of the Savannahian citizens as well as their habits, quirks, and deep dark secrets.

The book is divided into two parts—the first half focuses mostly on different people Berendt befriends during his stay in Savannah and the second half of the book turns into a true crime murder mystery as one of the lead characters, Jim Williams, is accused of murder and has a series of trials. Because this was a re-read for me and I've seen the movie several times (it is super boring by the way), I wasn't as interested in William's case this time around. Sure it is fascinating and I think you'll be pulled into the details, but what I got out of my second reading was just how dynamic the citizens of Savannah truly are.

Some of my favorites are Luther Driggers whose hobbies include carrying flies around on string and threatening to poison all of Savannah if he has a bad day; Joe Odem who everyone loves despite the fact that he probably owes everyone a little money here and there; Jim Williams who throws the most luxurious parties in his restored house filled with expensive antiques. And of course, Williams is the central character of the book who causes a stir in Savannah when it becomes known during his murder trial that he is a homosexual--something the refined upper class wasn't quite sure how to handle in the early 80s. My favorite character, is hands down The Lady Chablis. Chablis is a transsexual drag queen who meets Berendt after receiving her monthly shot of horomones. You never know what's going to come out of Chablis's mouth and she loves ruffling feathers everywhere she goes.

One thing I noticed in my reading this time was how much race and sexuality were at the forefront of the story. Everything is very black and white for the Savannahians and I'll admit that reading some of the passages made me a little squeamish because of the backwardness of their beliefs. From what Berendt notes, desegregation was actually a very smooth process for Savannahians during the 1960s. There were no major protests and the whites and blacks had gotten along fine for decades before desegregation. Berendt implies that even though there was no big protest or rebellion or outcry, it is understood that both will have their own societies and there is no need for real mixture between the two races. Now, this book was written 15 years ago and set almost 25 years ago, so I can only hope that things are a little more progressive now.

Do I recommend the book? Without very many reservations. I haven't met anyone who read this book and didn't like it. Simply put the characters are incredibly vibrant and memorable, and that alone makes this a worthwhile read. It's the perfect armchair traveler book and has me itching to make road trip plans out to Savannah. I loved the atmosphere--the southern gentility and charm, a little old world mixed with the new world, and the dark brooding tone of the second half of the novel. Berendt and Williams dabble in a little hoodoo with a woman named Minerva when Williams' murder trials don't seem to be going as planned. All of these things combined with Berendt's rich storytelling capabilities create an exciting and entertaining read. I didn't record my original thoughts on the book, but I think my initial rating probably would have been 4.5 out of 5.

Have you ever read a non-fiction book that felt like reading fiction? Was there a book you read that made you want to visit that locale immediately?

**For a balance of opinions:
CJ from My Year of Reading Seriously
Robin from A Fondness of Reading
Stacy’s Bookblog
Tim from Blogging the Bookshelf

And in case you're curious, yes, I've read The City of Fallen Angels as well.


Amanda said...

Oh yes, I'd count this one.

I didn't know it was nonfiction until you posted it on your NFF list. I saw the movie back my freshman year in college. It was practically in the middle of the night, the people who took me were all smoking cigars in the car before we got there, and the bottled water I bought at the stand had a really funny taste. I think it might have been expired or food-poisoned in some way or another because I got really sick by the time we got out of the movie. I didn't like what was on the screen (yes, boring), and the sickness made everything worse. Thus, I've had no desire to read the book. Is it really a lot better from the movie?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking to my review! I loved this book. Now I'm trying to get my hands on the next one Berendt wrote about Venice!

cj said...

So, call me dense but... this is non-fiction? Really? I had no idea. Don't know if that's good or bad, however.

Oh, and you changed the name of my blog, doll. It's Reading Seriously, not Dangerously... not that I don't do that, too!


christina said...


That's really interesting that you thought the book was fiction (and in fact makes me drawn to it even more). I picked up the book whilst touring around Savannah last year. It is such a beautiful and historical location that I was taken into the idea of the story.

(We participated in a couple of ghosts tours. Fantastique!)

Unfortunately the book has found its way on one of the many shelves in my home. Soon, very soon, perhaps it will be removed and actually read!

Thoughts of Joy said...

Oh good - a 4/5! :) I have the book and the audio on my iPod. I think I'm going to have to defer to the iPod because I just don't have the time to read everything! I hope I like it better than The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. :)

Meghan said...

I have this one on my TBR pile. To be honest I had pretty much no idea what it was about, but I'd heard that it was good. Your review makes me very glad I picked it up because I think I'll like it! I like the idea of non-fiction feeling like fiction, it seems like it will draw me in more. I can't recall having that happen to me before, though, even though it probably has.

bermudaonion said...

You need to go visit Savannah now! I read this book years ago and toured Savannah shortly thereafter. Everyone referred to Midnight as "The Book" and the tour made "The Book" come alive for me.

samantha.1020 said...

I have this book patiently waiting for me to read it on my TBR shelf. It sounds really good and I am hoping to pick it up soon. Great review!

Trish said...

*Amanda - The book is a lot better than the movie. Not sure if you'd like it? Wish I could give you a more definitive answer. :P What an awful experience, by the way.

*Stacybuckeye - The one about Venice is good too--lots of great characters. I didn't like it as much as this one, but now I don't remember why!

*CJ - My apologies--it's fixed now. But yes, definitely non-fiction! Surprising, huh?

*Christina - Ahhh--so jealous about your trip to Savannah! I'd love to go, but it isn't an easy city to get to. I hope you like this one--the feel of the city really seeps through the pages.

*Joy - Definitely listen to this one! Some of the trial details were a bit dull, but the characters are great and I think it would be a lot of fun to hear some of them have an actual voice. Enjoy!

*Meghan - I find that with memoir especially the writing feels more akin to fiction--not as dry and boring. Although, I think that's kind of changing with non-fiction (or maybe I'm just finding better books). I hope you enjoy this one!!

*Bermuda - Funny--I was just talking to my mom about taking a trip to Savannah and wondering if there is a MGGE tour. :)

*Samantha - So many books, so little time. It's a relatively quick read. Some of the trial details get a little repetitive, but overall a very interesting book.

Debi said...

I've been wanting to read this book for ages, but can't seem to actually get around to it. In fact, I bought many years ago, and then eventually gave it away figuring I just was never going to get to it. Then I was sorry about my decision and went and bought it again. And still haven't read it.

But you know, I actually enjoyed the movie quite a bit.

Brittany said...

After we moved to Georgia, I read this book and watched the movie, hoping to get to know the culture a bit. I now realize how unique Savannah is even within Georgia, but I still really enjoyed the book! Later, I had the opportunity to work on some very interesting legal research that directly touched on the Midnight trial - so I have even more affection for the book! :) Now I need to visit Savannah to see what the actual city is all about...

Melissa said...

I really enjoyed this one, too! I actually did know that it was NF, but that was only because I learned about it while on a trip to Savannah, lol. I decided to get a copy after getting home and devoured it. The movie actually isn't half bad, either, I was surprised.

Lisa said...

I read this when it first came out. I was working at the bookstore and we were allowed to check out one book at a time to take home to read. I remember the very southern feel and the shock about Williams being gay, but very little else. I'd forgotten The Lady Chablis until I read this- it seems that she wrote a book too, is that right? It definitely made me want to visit Savannah.

claire said...

I didn't think this would be a good read so have been ignoring it for years, lol, but thanks for your very positive review, I'll keep an eye on it now for sure. A nonfiction that reads like fiction, I'd say Angela's Ashes? It was so funny and tragic at the same time.

Stephanie said...

I loved this book. In fact, the last time we drove to Florida for vacation, I made us do a big detour just so I could see Savannah. Loved this book. I read it directly after seeing the movie for the first time (um, John Cusak...yummy!)

I didn't like The City of Fallen Anlges nearly as much. I just couldn't relate to the charaters. At least not like this book!

Trish said...

*Debi - Truth be told it wasn't the easiest book for me to get into the first time, but I really enjoyed it. Funny that you went and bought the book again--I read my dad's copy years ago and liked it so much I got my own copy. :)

*Brittany - I almost typed this in my review, but it was getting long so I didn't. The thing about the characters is that Berendt chooses who to include in the book. Of course he's going to include THE most colorful people in Savannah. I don't know if I believe the entire city is eccentric and crazy. But Berendt suggests that because Savannah is so isolated that their culture is a little different. How awesome to work on the Midnight trial! I bet it was fascinating.

*Melissa - Was there a lot of hype about the book in Savannah while you were there? I wonder how the book has increased the tourism there! Definitely made me want to go.

*Lisa - Yes, she did--the link I sent you about hiding her candy. haha! How can you possibly forget about The Lady Chablis? "I'm serious!" :)

*Claire - Oh, definitely Angela's Ashes! Also The Glass Castle is a memoir that reads a bit like fiction--very fluid storytelling. This is a good book and I've heard very few negative things about it--hope you can fit it in.

*Stephanie - LOL--I would totally make a detour to get to Savannah. Too bad it isn't on the way anywhere. And John Cusack? Say Anything? Oh goodness... Like you I didn't like City of Fallen Angels as much.

Vivienne said...

I bought this years ago and never actually got around to reading it. I didn't realise it was non fiction, I was always convinced it was fiction. I shall definitely search it out in my garage.

Anonymous said...

This one have been on my list for ever. I think The Devil in the White City is classified as non-fiction, but definitely read like fiction to me.

Serena said...

This is a book that I bought years ago, but made the mistake of watching the movie first. Yes, I haven't even picked this book up off the shelf. Sad I know.

I can't recall any nonfiction that felt like fiction, but if I find any I will be sure to mention it.

Nymeth said...

I'm so glad you said the movie was boring! Because I've heard nothing but nice things about the book, yet the movie was one of the very few I walked out of, I was so bored. So yeah...I think I'll be reading this after all :P

Charley said...

The title alone makes me want to read this book. I might skip the movie, though.

Jeane said...

I've seen this book so many times on bookstore/library shelves and always wondered what it was about- and always thought it was fiction, too! I do enjoy non-fic that reads like fiction, but I don't know if this one would quite be my cup of tea.

Lit and Life said...

I've read both "Midnight" and "City of Fallen Angels" and far preferred "Midnight." I just thought the "characters" were so great in "Midnight!" But I really liked "City of Fallen Angels" as well.

Trish said...

*Vivienne - This one definitely reads like fiction, especially as the characters are sometimes unbelievable, but it's non-fiction!

*Carolsnotebook - Oh Devil in the White City is a great one for non-fiction that reads like fiction.

*Serena - Give yourself a little time to forget the movie and then read this book. Although I've seen the movie several times and read the book once before I still really enjoyed this reading of it. Lots of things that aren't covered in the movie!

*Nymeth - I don't know what it is about Clint Eastwood's movies, but I'm always a little apprehensive when I find out he's the director. Always kind of dull movies. :) Great actor, though. Definitely better than the movie!

*Charley - It is a great title, huh? It fits into some of the hoodoo/voodoo themes in the book.

*Jeane - It's a lot about the town characters and then a lot about the murder trail. If neither of those sound interesting, you might skip it. I haven't read many negative things about it, though.

*Lit and Life - I agree about the characters in Midnight being much more eccentric and interesting than in City of Fallen Angels. Although there were some good ones there, too.