Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
This book follows New York-based writer John Berendt’s move to Savannah, Georgia in the 1980s and the unbelievable events that transpired during his time there. The book’s initial focus is on the people Berendt befriends in Savannah and the general Southern way of life. However, it later transitions into an account of a real-life murder mystery when one of Savannah’s very own residents—and John’s friend— Jim Williams, is caught up in a highly publicized trial.
Berendt’s style of writing is seamless as he explores the strange, yet charming Savannahian atmospherics and how one big trial shook up one little town.
“The music continued in that vein, off and on, throughout the day and late into the evening. It did the same the following day and the day after that. The piano was a permanent part of the atmosphere, apparently, and so was the party—if a party was what it was,” (39).
“Joe started to play the piano in the middle of Mandy’s story. ‘In the morning,’ he said, ‘three bottles of liquor and a half dozen glasses were missing. That doesn’t sound like a burglary to me. It sounds like a party. And the only thing that annoys me about it is that we weren’t invited,” (48).
“‘Did I ever tell you about them? Well, we keep a lot of insect colonies in big glass jars out there. Some of them have been breeding for twenty five years. That’s a thousand generations. All they know about life is what goes on inside their jar. They haven’t been exposed to pesticides or pollution, so they haven’t developed immunities or evolved in any way. They stay the same, generation after generation. If we released them into the world, they’d die. I think something like that happens after seven generations in Savannah. Savannah gets to be the only place you can live. We’re like bugs in a jar,'” (75).
“Joe had nothing against convicted bank robbers—or getaway drivers either—but he felt foolish entrusting his cash register to a dedicated thief,” (92).
“‘Is everyone out?’ the fire captain asked.
‘Everyone I know about,’ said Joe.
‘You mean there might be people in your house you don’t know about?
‘Captain,’ said Joe, ‘there have been times when there were people in my bed I didn’t know about,'” (93).
“Savannahians drove fast. They also liked to carry their cocktails with them as they drove. According to the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, more than 8 percent of Savannah’s adults were ‘known alcoholics,’ which may have accounted for the disturbing tendency of motorists to run up over the curb and collide with trees,” (95).
“Burt had a shiny bald head and sad eyes. ‘How you doing Chablis?’ he asked.
‘Well, I ain’t on food stamps yet,’ she said. ‘But I’m gettin’ real close. It’s a good thing y’all don’t pay me any more than you do, or I might never qualify.’ Burt did not answer,” (120).
“‘When people like that see someone like me, who’s never joined their silly pecking order and who’s taken great risks and succeeded, they loathe that person. I have felt it many times. They don’t have any say-so over me, and they don’t like that at all,'” (237).
“Joe ignored the order. ‘The best response is always no response,’ he said. ‘It buys you two or three months’ breathing time, six if you’re lucky,'” (262).
One of my best friends back home loaned me MGGE a couple of weeks ago telling me she fell in love with it extraordinarily quickly and couldn’t get it out of her head. It was difficult for her to identify why it had such a notable impact on her, but she wanted me to read it and see how I felt. Coincidentally, I had briefly heard of this book beforehand on a tour of Savannah as a couple of summers ago. It was my first time in Savannah and the tour fell on the hottest day of the entire summer which meant every tour guide was vehemently fanning herself as she explained the sights from our open-air bus. When our bus approached the main house mentioned in the book, the guide explained Berendt’s book was a wild success and brought a good amount of tourism to Savannah. However, I had no idea then that it would take me two years before I reached for this book. Reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was a way for me to return to Savannah and understand a little bit more about the general culture there as well as reflect on how I felt when I visited.
As I touched on at the top of this review, part of the book’s beauty is the atmosphere evoked on each page. It doesn’t feel forced by any means. In fact, the way each park and house are brought to life is smooth and effortless. It’s easy to fall into and I loved that about it.
One thing I was somewhat taken aback by was the subject matter and general lack of true crime. Maybe I misunderstood what the book was about beforehand, but I was expecting much more mystique and in general something completely different than what the story actually turned out to be. Although the book is arguably more focused on the shooting in Jim Williams’ house than it is on anything else, a substantial piece of the plot (mostly the beginning of the book) explores the varying social circles within Savannah. This big plot point simply put is: Savannah doesn’t want change. Savannah welcomes outsiders, but she will have you know she is fine with the way she is and she definitely doesn’t need outsiders to tell her otherwise. This us vs. them mentality is partly owed to the fact that Berendt himself is an outsider, yet also contradicted as he is able to join the high-flying social circles of Savannah quite easily.
All in all, I enjoyed this book immensely. The writing reminded me of Erik Larson’s, Devil in the White City which made my experience that much better. It highlights Savannah’s good and bad points fairly while also shedding light on a captivating trial and even stranger people. My friend and I both repeatedly said we had to keep reminding ourselves it was non-fiction while reading because everything seemed so outrageous and unrealistic. If that’s not great non-fiction, I don’t know what is.
If you haven’t already, I would highly recommend you read this book!