Thursday, September 3

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil - John Berendt

A Northern writer visits Savannah in the last 1970's and, over a period of months, gets to know some of the more colourful and influential residents of this traditional and unique Southern city. When Danny Handsford, a young hustler, is shot and killed by an influential older man, there's some expectation that it will be swept to one side, which is consistent with related events. Instead antiques dealer Jim Williams is charged and tried. As our narrator covers the subsequent events he finds himself discovering a new side of a town he's come to love.
Based on real events but tweaked, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is written in first person and presented as wholly factual. Far more a character study than murder mystery, Berendt introduces readers to a variety of eccentrics from the lauded Lady Chablis (a lounge singer who sometimes takes a break from the hormones and goes by Frank); disenfranchised Luther Driggers (who's supposed to have a vial of concentrated poison that could wipe out the town through the water supply), and voodoo priestess Minerva (who gives the book its title). The central character, though, is Georgia's Savannah, and Berendt weaves a picture of eccentric independence and the presence of the past into his narrative.
I'm surprised Midnight was such a success but suspect that, like some other surprise best sellers, it tapped into a zeitgeist that passed me by. It's certainly more a literary novel than it is murder mystery - the pace is languid, the pivotal event occurs around half way through, and if you're reading for content rather than ambiance you'll find yourself wondering what the point of much of the atmospheric writing is. Indeed, had the shooting not occured I would have been hard-pressed to find a narrative spine in the book. It didn't read to me as though the death of Handsford was in the front of Berendt's mind when he began writing, and there's nothing that flags the lead up as significant.
Yet, despite this, none of the events seem shocking or even surprising - everything unfolds at a languid, low impact pace that I suspect reflects the society he depicts. Even the unusual people seem drawn in pastel or sepia tones, removing much of the significance of even quite shocking revelations. And while we learn a little about the city of Savannah and her people, I came away from the book with no sense of the author, where he came from, why he spent so much time in Georgia, what drew him to Savannah, or even what he thought about any of it.
Perhaps that's what influenced my feelings of neutrality. Midnight is one of the many books I've had languishing about for years and have brought with me overseas to read before allowing myself to buy anything new. All I knew about it going in was that I'd had it for years, it was set in the South, had some vague connection with voodoo, was well received, and had been made into a film. I come away from it feeling much the same. I certainly didn't hate it, but I didn't love it, I wasn't connected to it, and I don't feel altered by it. I understand that some people love it, and am sure they have their reasons, but for me it will be part of the background wallpaper of my 2009 reading list. - Alex

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