Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

This was the book I read for our Third Tuesday Book Club this month; normally we pick fiction books, but this is a non-fiction book that reads like fiction. (It is also a book that I read back in 1999.) Since I could not go to the Third Tuesday Book Club meeting this month (on the fourth Tuesday, due to Mardi Gras) due to a mandatory meeting at my work, I was under no deadline to read the book, and finished it yesterday (Wednesday, February 25th, 2015). I found the book to be very engaging, and the characters are very much characters, in all senses of the word.

Our author and narrator, a features writer in New York City, was drawn to Savannah, Georgia, both by Treasure Island and Gone With the Wind (and an old newspaper clipping from 1914 headed “Tango Is No Sign of Insanity, Holds Jury”), and rented a house in the Historic District in 1980. He quickly makes the acquaintance of various people who live in the District, and who would not think of ever living anyplace else (many of them have been in the District for generations). Among his friends are a laissez-faire lawyer who lives rent-free in houses until the absentee owners find out (he also keeps an open house, and runs tour groups through whatever house he is living in to make extra money), an exotic black dancer named The Lady Chablis (nee “Frank”), a hapless inventor who is rumored to have enough poison to kill every man, woman and child in the District, and a brash antiques dealer living in the largest mansion in Savannah still in private hands. The antique dealer also has a young man working for him who is described as “a walking streak of sex”, who lives a deeply destructive life (both to him and to others around him).

The death of one of the characters by gunshots does not occur until half-way through the book; through the trials and appeals, we meet a few other characters, including the lawyer for the defense who is the owner of UGA IV (the pure-white English bulldog who is the mascot and the heart of Georgia Football) and a “root doctor”, who works white magic in the half-hour before midnight and black magic in the half-hour after midnight (and who berates the dead root doctor who was her common-law husband because he will not give her the numbers she needs to play with her bookmaker).

One of the constants in the story is Bonaventure Cemetery, resting place of the cream of Savannah society. Johnny Mercer, the songwriter and singer, is buried there (his family had been in Savannah for generations), as is Conrad Aiken, the poet and the author of the haunting short story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow”, next to his parents, who died in a murder-suicide shooting by his father when Aiken was eleven (he was upstairs, and heard the shots). The cover photograph of this book, taken by Jack Leigh, features an evocative sculpture of a young girl, the so-called Bird Girl, that had been in the cemetery, essentially unnoticed, for over 50 years. After the publication of the book, the sculpture was donated to Savannah’s Telfair Museum of Art to avoid disturbances by visitors to the cemetery.

I enjoyed reading this book, quirky as it was (it moves a bit back and forth in time, at times we seem to be inside the heads of other narrators, and it is not quite altogether non-fiction, but is what has been called “faction”). But if I was to live anywhere in the world (given the winning Powerball numbers), I would live in the Quarters in New Orleans, which is home to its own kind of quirkiness.

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