<body><script type="text/javascript"> function setAttributeOnload(object, attribute, val) { if(window.addEventListener) { window.addEventListener('load', function(){ object[attribute] = val; }, false); } else { window.attachEvent('onload', function(){ object[attribute] = val; }); } } </script> <div id="navbar-iframe-container"></div> <script type="text/javascript" src="https://apis.google.com/js/plusone.js"></script> <script type="text/javascript"> gapi.load("gapi.iframes:gapi.iframes.style.bubble", function() { if (gapi.iframes && gapi.iframes.getContext) { gapi.iframes.getContext().openChild({ url: 'https://www.blogger.com/navbar.g?targetBlogID\x3d16149408\x26blogName\x3dThe+Blogulator\x26publishMode\x3dPUBLISH_MODE_BLOGSPOT\x26navbarType\x3dBLACK\x26layoutType\x3dCLASSIC\x26searchRoot\x3dhttp://chrisandqualler.blogspot.com/search\x26blogLocale\x3den_US\x26v\x3d2\x26homepageUrl\x3dhttp://chrisandqualler.blogspot.com/\x26vt\x3d7090024357285529333', where: document.getElementById("navbar-iframe-container"), id: "navbar-iframe" }); } }); </script>

« Home | Next » | Next » | Next » | Next » | Next » | Next » | Next » | Next » | Next » | Next »

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

This month's book club selection was a reread for me, as I read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in 2006. That's enough time to forget most of what a book is about, but not so much that, if you're not itching to revisit, you feel as though you would choose to if you weren't forced. So I approached Midnight with something a little less than enthusiasm, not because I hadn't liked it back when I first read it--I had, a lot--but because I never thought I'd need to read it again.

So imagine my surprise when, on page one, Berendt sucked me back in to the eccentric and fascinating wonderland that is Savannah, Georgia. I recalled the basic premise of the "nonfiction novel"(a term coined by critics whilst describing Truman Capote's peerless work of true crime, In Cold Blood) well enough--Jim Williams, a fabulously wealthy antiques dealer and restorer of historical buildings, shot and killed his twenty-one-year-old erstwhile employee, Danny Hansford, after a late night argument in the study of his regal Savannah home in May of 1981.

But the book is so much more than that. Williams and Hansford are introduced in the book's opening pages, but nary a word is mentioned about the crime or the ensuing legal hullabaloo that erupted in its wake until more than a hundred pages in. Berendt takes his time setting the scene, slowly winding his way through the various echelons of Savannah society as a not-quite-impartial observer. Using his keen reporter's eye, Berendt chats up everyone, from his charming ne'er-do-well neighbor, Joe Odom, to a haunted inventor who constantly threatens to poison the town's water supply, to a fringe socialite who wears nothing but nighties trimmed with feathers and maribou well into her later years, to a man who continues to walk his employer's dog despite the fact that the dog (and the employer) have been dead for years.

Berendt's introduction of Savannah to the reader is masterful. His beautiful prose takes you into the heart of a town that is geographically isolated for the most part, and essentially unchanged despite centuries of progress ramming at its front gates. Savannah is a city of willful, eclectic personalities and deeply entrenched prejudices, mores, traditions and social strata, and Berendt deftly brings that to life without overwhelming the reader with too much of one vivid idiosyncratic native.

Still, the first section of the book seems to be building up to something, and that something is Hansford's murder. According to nearly all of Savannah, Danny Hansford was a volatile young man who was often drunk and high and terrifyingly angry, and liable to take out his aggression on anyone within spitting distance. His relationship with Williams is hinted at for a while without being directly stated, but it becomes clear that Hansford was a part-time hustler, "a walking streak of sex" and "a good time not yet had by all." He and Williams were involved sexually, but it was obviously more than that; Williams could have had sex with any number of men, there was no need to keep around someone who had no problem breaking his priceless objets d'art, stealing his money, and shooting up his meticulously restored home. The question was, why did he? What was it that Danny Hansford had, besides undeniable sex appeal, that made Williams tolerate his behavior until, one day, he didn't, and shot him three times with a German luger?

It never really makes sense. Williams insists that he was invested in Danny, that he thought the young man was redeemable, but the evidence doesn't suggest that the boy had very much in him but loneliness and rage.

Because Savannah is, above all things, a place of stately manners, Williams expects, as a member of the elite, to be let off the hook, having pled self defense. He claimed Danny had entered his house, destroyed some of his beloved antiques, then shot at Williams three times with one of the guns Williams kept stashed around the house in case of robbery. When Danny missed, Williams pulled out his own gun and killed him. But there's no gun powder residue on Danny's hand, and the scene appears to have been staged before the police arrived, and the district attorney, backed by one of Williams' nemeses, indicts the pillar of the community with first degree murder.

I won't tell you how it turns out, although it was a real event so you can find out on your own very easily. Of course, Berendt twists his facts--that's why it's a nonfiction novel, and not a piece of investigative journalism. But one place I don't believe Berendt exaggerated was in his depiction of The Lady Chablis, a drag queen he becomes friends with. Chablis plays herself in the Clint Eastwood-directed movie version of Midnight, and while rereading her scenes I can still hear her voice ringing from the pages.

In rereading Midnight, I recalled what a solid, wonderful piece of work it is--fiction, nonfiction, it doesn't really matter. The prose is evocative, and the story a true Southern Gothic of the most fascinating kind with an appropriate, ironic ending that leaves you wondering just what kind of a man Jim Williams went to his grave being.

leave a response