Wednesday, November 25, 2009


(reflections on John Berendt's MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL.)

When you visit a city that you've seen in a movie, there's this effect that the sights are somehow more real for having been on the screen. The same holds true with cities you've seen in your mind's eye through reading. I read that idea in Walker Percy's novel THE MOVIEGOER, set in New Orleans, and my first visit to that city was enriched by the meta-New Orleans of Percy's telling that I carried around with me to each location. I say "enriched," but it also probably falsified the experience, too. Was I walking around like Dorothy in Frank Baum's original book, seeing Oz through emerald-colored lenses?

The same effect obtains in Savannah GA, now that I've seen it in some movie clips, and I've read about it in John Berendt's MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL.

Nothing in Berendt's work of creative non-fiction tops the author's evocation of Savannah as he first glimpsed it around the year 1980 (a year when I visited it, myself, as a college student). He's listening to the radio, driving the highway south from S.C., when...

Abruptly, the trees gave way to an open panorama of marsh grass the color of wheat. Straight ahead, a tall bridge rose steeply out of the plain. From the top of the bridge, I looked down on the Savannah River and, on the far side, a row of old brick buildings fronted by a narrow esplanade. Behind the buildings a mass of trees extended into the distance, punctuated by steeples, cornices, rooftops, and cupolas. As I descended from the bridge, I found myself plunging into a luxuriant green garden. (28)

Deftly, he introduces us to characters who introduce us to the city, and that city is itself the main character. "We have a saying," one character tells him.

If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is, "What's your business?" In Macon they ask, "Where do you go to church?" In Augusta they ask your grandmother's maiden name. But in Savannah the first question people ask you is, "What would you like to drink?" (31)

We learn the history of the place, how it was once a place of importance to the world, site of the first steam ship to launch into the Atlantic back in 1819, site of America's first golf course in 1796, and a key location in the Civil War. But the boll weavil and industrialization stripped Savannah of its main source of wealth and its labor force. Hard to reach by train or plane, the town is "gloriously isolated" (29) but also insular.

While living in Savannah, author Berendt stumbled into a salacious criminal trial: Jim Williams, leading figure in restoring Savannah to tourism-worthy architectural glory, is on trial for killing the young hustler who sometimes lives with him. Berendt uses this story as his scaffolding to show behind - the - scenes rivalries, sniping, back-stabbing, corruption, and flamboyant behavior of Savannah's eccentrics.

In the end, I'm afraid that the goodwill generated in the first half of the book is all but depleted by the end, though Berendt tries to liven the proceedings with some scenes of voodoo in Bonaventure Cemetery, that eponymous garden.

Happily, I finished reading the book while I was actually in Savannah, enjoying its sights, imbibing its almost Mediterranean sense that real life is what happens after work, when you're with your friends at some table, drinking and dining. But that may have been my colored glasses.

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