Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt

Midnight in the Garden of Good and EvilI chose this book for my book club not because I should have read it a long time ago but because I think everyone else who lives in the South has read it and I need to catch up on my Southern literature, even that written by a Yank.

This book was a little weird to read; like In Cold Blood before it this book is a sort of non-fiction novel where most of the facts are true but Berendt takes some liberties to protect the innocent and make the story sound better when needed, which at least he acknowledges up front unlike a certain Mr. Capote.

So all this stuff happens and it’s absolutely bonkers crazypants and I am like, I really hope this is all creative license, but there is so much of it that a lot of it must be true…

Anyway, what happens is John Berendt goes down to Georgia and stays awhile and makes friends with all the people in Savannah, rich and poor and middle class and black and white (which is still a HUGE distinction in 1980s Savannah), which is pretty easy because he’s clearly told everyone he’s planning to write a book, what with all the times he writes about people telling him to include such-and-such in his book. So meta.

And so we learn a lot of the gossip of Savannah, especially about the big shots and how they all secretly hate each other (I mean, of course they do) and also about this weird dude who lives in a big house and has a tantrum-throwing hired kid living and working with him and sometimes flies a Nazi flag to annoy film crews and possibly inadvertently his Jewish neighbors.

The focus on this weird dude makes more sense when he kills the hired kid and is put on trial, with said trial taking up the last half of the book. The whole thing is nuts — the dude pleads self-defense, but it’s pretty obvious that he did some staging of the scene after the fact, but then also it turns out that police did a grand job bungling the whole case, including waltzing all around the murder site before all the pictures were taken, and also also the prosecutor is an idiot and the trial gets retried a bunch of times before a decision is made that sticks.

The whole book is nuts, but it makes a lot of things about living in the South make more sense and has a lot of interesting things to say about race and class and especially gentrification, so it’s actually a pretty useful read for new Southerners as well as a page-turning story. It also makes me want to visit Savannah again with an eye to all of this insanity, so I’m sure the Savannah tourism board loves it.

Recommendation: For those who like bonkers stories that also happen to be mostly true.

Rating: 8/10

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