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A Brilliant Balancing Act

  • May 14, 2005
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As explained by the voodoo priestess Minerva, the magic of her craft is best practiced in a one-hour period between 11:30 PM and 12:30 PM called "dead time."

"The half hour before midnight is for doin' good," she explains. "The half hour after midnight is for doin' evil."

Something of the same dynamic occurs here, in John Berendt's examination of the mores and manners of a backwater Southern city. The book is divided into two parts, the first of which draws us into the lush, amiable beauty of Savannah, Georgia, with its sleepy squares, Mercer songs, cold cocktails, and manor houses occupied by eccentric, slightly dangerous, but always charming characters; the second of which throws us in a convoluted murder case in which darkness springs out and a sense of evil's complicit character grows within you and yet, the charm of the first half remains vibrant as ever.

Some might call it voodoo. Berendt himself says he knew he had a bestseller when he first saw the cover photograph, a Gothic statue of a little girl holding two bowls, her head slightly tilting toward one with an ironic smile on her face. It sets the whole tone of the book, that we are going to get a balancing act between good and evil, fact and fiction, generosity and greed. Even the North-South dynamic is played with, as Berendt is a visitor from New York disoriented by the strange casualness of this very traditional place.

Great dialogue abounds, much of it of the overheard-in-the-hallway variety. Two old ladies are whispering at a party about a Luger used in a murder, and you the reader bend an ear.

"My late husband blew his brains out with one of those," says one.

"Oh! So did mine! I'll never forget it."

I should say not. Nor will you forget the case of antiques dealer Jim Williams and his naughty boy-toy, or the marabou-clad beauty of yesteryear who bosses around the help with a stevedore's vocabulary and seems the real-life model for Bette Davis' character in "The Little Foxes."

A minor criticism of "Midnight" is that Berendt's wanderings through the fair Georgia seaside city seem to acquaint him exclusively with old women and gay men. The transvestite Lady Chablis gets to be a minor annoyance. I guess the whole concept of "faction", that is the telling of a factual story through fictional constructs such as imagined conversations, sits poorly with me, but Berendt not only maximizes the obvious entertainment potential of such a method, he managed to write something that most everyone in Savannah was not only comfortable with but took pride in, especially when the tourist dollars started rolling.

"Midnight" has a mysterious charm that draws you in, and rewards return visits. At its conclusion, Berendt's narrative ironically lights upon a tour bus, ironic because the bus has but three passengers. After his book came out, Savannah became a kind of Disneyland destination for the book's millions of readers.

In the conclusion, Berendt notes the tourists leave "none the wiser about the secrets that lay within the innermost glades of its secluded bower." We feel much wiser after finishing this great book. But are we? Again, "Midnight" is a balancing act that holds together very well, and you will enjoy the game of reading it.

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More Midnight in the Garden of Good... reviews
review by . February 22
John Berendt’s Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil-a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize in the category of General Nonfiction-is unlike any true-crime book that I’ve come across. First, the work as a whole, is so polished it reads like an amazing work of American literature rather than a hard-nosed and gruff fact-book that one would normally expect with this kind of subject matter. The clarity of thought and execution of language is on a level that transcends the true-crime genre; …
review by . September 27, 2012
The movie adaption of Berendt's "nonfiction novel", as one back-cover reviewer terms it, is much better known than the original book.  And while I've not yet seen the movie, I can understand why, for both a positive and a negative reason.        Lets start with the positive.  The book reads like the treatment for an atmospheric and slow-moving movie, by turns mysterious, funny, and sexy.  New Yorker Berendt splits time between his native …
review by . September 13, 2011
This is a story about the city of Savannah, its people and history.      "Esquire" writer John Berendt is in Savannah, Georgia, to write a story about the extravagant holiday party that Jim Williams puts on each year.      Williams is an antique dealer and played a major role in the restoration of Savannah's historical district. He lives in the family home of songwriter, Johnny Mercer.      A number of colorful  characters …
review by . January 02, 2011
I'm having a difficult time deciding whether John Berendt set out to make mock of Savannah from the get-go or whether he was trying to write a sincere travelogue/murder story about a city that just happens to be filled to the brim with laughable oddities, eccentricities and a most perverse, inwardly directed, indeed almost incestuous sense of moral rectitude and appropriate behaviour.    Berendt certainly had no shortage of "characters" with which to people his oddball narrative …
Quick Tip by . January 02, 2011
While one might say that MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL is in the same genre - novelized true crime - that's where the resemblance to the likes of IN COLD BLOOD stops. The New York Times Book Review said it far better than I could. This "... might be the first true-crime book that makes the reader want to book a bed and breakfast for an extended weekend at the scene of the crime."
review by . February 09, 2005
Some books just have that "It" - charm, humor, style and all the quirks that help make a story memorable. Non-fiction has never been more fun - in fact I had to contiously had to remind myself that this is actually a true story! You wonder how this cast of characters could all exist in one city!    The actual story revolves around a murder and if or if not it was committed. The accuses was prosecuted and convicted several times before he is finally freed. However, the true star …
review by . May 06, 2004
MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL is a piece of nonfiction. However, it's not really a crime story, nor is it a straight biography/memoir. Instead, the book falls somewhere inbetween the two. The story revolves around the author's experiences living in Savannah, Georgia and meeting up with Jim Williams and his trial for murder that ended up being tried four different times over a period of eight years. The murder and the trials are kind of interesting and they are the threads that hold the …
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Bill Slocum ()
Ranked #299
Reading is my way of eavesdropping on a thousand conversations, meeting hundreds of new and fascinating people, and discovering what it is about the world I enjoy most. Only after a while, I lose track … more
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About this book


John Berendt'sMidnight in the Garden of Good and Evilhas been heralded as a "lyrical work of nonfiction," and the book's extremely graceful prose depictions of some of Savannah, Georgia's most colorful eccentrics--remarkable characters who could have once prospered in a William Faulkner novel or Eudora Welty short story--were certainly a critical factor in its tremendous success. (One resident into whose orbit Berendt fell, the Lady Chablis, went on to become a minor celebrity in her own right.) But equally important was Berendt's depiction of Savannah socialite Jim Williams as he stands trial for the murder of Danny Hansford, a moody, violence-prone hustler--and sometime companion to Williams--characterized by locals as a "walking streak of sex." So feel free to call it a "true crime classic" without a trace of shame.

Evening in Mercer house --
Destination unknown --
Sentimental gentleman --
Settling in --
Inventor --
Lady of six thousand songs --
Grand empress of Savannah --
Sweet Georgia Brown's --
Walking streak of sex --
It ain't braggin' if y'really done it --
News flash --
Gunplay --
Checks and balances --
Party of the year --
Civic duty --
Trial --
Hole in the floor --
Midnight in the garden of good and evil --
Lafayette square, we are here --
Sonny --
Notes on a rerun --
Pod --
Lunch --
Black minuet --
Talk of the town --
Another story --
Lucky number --
Glory --
And the angels ...
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ISBN-10: 0679751521
ISBN-13: 978-0679751526
Author: John Berendt
Genre: History, Nonfiction
Publisher: Vintage
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