John Berendt Essay - Critical Essays

Berendt, John

Introduction

John Berendt Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story

Born in 1939, Berendt is an American nonfiction writer and journalist.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1994), a combination travel book and true-crime narrative, begins as a tour of Savannah, Georgia, a city Berendt describes as "an isolated environment with its own rules, where each person you meet is stranger than the next." Drawing on his familiarity with Savannah's population—he lived there for a seven-year period—Berendt introduces such colorful and unique characters as a voodoo queen, a black transvestite, a con man who squats in mansions when their owners are out of town, and a local inventor who threatens to poison the city's water supply. A major figure in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is Jim Williams, an antiques dealer, gun buff, and owner of one of the largest houses in the city. When Williams is accused of murdering his male lover, the book enters the true-crime genre, and in recounting the four subsequent murder trials involving Williams, Berendt examines the effects of the trials on Savannah society. Critics have generally praised Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, especially for the way Berendt captures Savannah's eccentric—and yet genteel—residents and history. Glenna Whitley has observed that Berendt's account may be "the first true-crime book that makes the reader want to call a travel agent … for an extended weekend at the scene of the crime."

Criticism

Martha Schoolman (review date 15 October 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in Booklist, Vol. 90, No. 4, October 15, 1993, pp. 413-14.

[In the following review, Schoolman offers a positive assessment of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.]

[John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story] is a wonderfully subtle and well-told story of life in Savannah, Georgia, during the eight years the New York-based Esquire magazine columnist spent there as an "experiment in bi-urban living." It is an old saw that the Deep South is populated exclusively by faded beauty queens, con men, eccentric socialites, and a skele-ton in every closet, but Berendt manages to tread on the edges of the stereotype without caricature or condescension. "Always stick around for one more drink," one of the local characters advises him early in the book. "That's when things happen. That's when you find out everything you want to know." Berendt not only takes the drink but is game for every half-baked errand he is asked to perform, always with excellent narrative results. Perhaps one of the things that make this nonfiction work unique is that its plot centers on a murder, but Berendt takes his sweet time getting around to that fact, allowing the reader to be as surprised as he must have been watching the events unfold. Midnight is a solidly rewarding read.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 October 1993)

SOURCE: A review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. LXI, No. 20, October 15, 1993, p. 1300.

[In the following review, the critic offers praise for Midnight in the the Garden of Good and Evil.]

Steamy Savannah—and the almost unbelievable assortment of colorful eccentrics that the city seems to nurture—are minutely and wittily observed [in John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story].

In the early 1980's, Berendt (former editor of New York Magazine) realized that for the price of a nouvelle cuisine meal, he could fly to just about any city in the US that intrigued him. In the course of these travels, he fell under the spell of Savannah, and moved there for a few years. Central to his story here is his acquaintance with Jim Williams, a Gatsby-like, newly moneyed antiques dealer, and Williams's sometime lover Danny Hansford, a "walking streak of sex"—a volatile, dangerous young hustler whose fatal shooting by Williams obsesses the city. Other notable characters include Chablis, a show-stealing black drag queen; Joe Odom, cheerfully amoral impresario and restaurateur; Luther Driggers, inventor of the flea collar, who likes it to be known that he has a supply of poison so lethal that he could wipe out every person in the city if he chose to slip it into the water supply; and Minerva, a black occultist who works with roots and whom Williams hires to help deal with what the antiques dealer believes to be Hansford's vengeful ghost. Showing a talent for penetrating any social barrier, Berendt gets himself invited to the tony Married Women's Club; the rigidly proper Black Debutantes' Ball (which Chablis crashes); the inner sanctum of power-lawyer Sonny Seiler; and one of Williams's fabled Christmas parties (the one for a mixed group; the author opts out of the following evening's "bachelors only" fête). The imprisonment and trial of Williams, and his surprising fate, form the narrative thread that stitches together this crazy quilt of oddballs, poseurs, snobs, sorceresses, and outlaws.

Stylish, brilliant, hilarious, and coolhearted.

Rhoda Koenig (review date 10 January 1994)

SOURCE: "That's What We Like about the South," in New York Magazine, Vol. 27, No. 2, January 10, 1994, pp. 57-8.

[In the following review, Koenig discusses the colorful and eccentric characters in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.]

When John Berendt, a former editor of this magazine [New York], decided to spend some time in Savannah, he thought he could write a book about this decayed but elegant one-time capital of the cotton kingdom, a city so hospitable that it provides a marble mausoleum for any visitors who happen to die there. After a while, though, his research started to wander from the restoration of the Victorian district, or anecdotes about such past Savannahians as Conrad Aiken and Johnny Mercer. "We do our best to set you on the straight and narrow," a neighbor of Berendt's complained, "and look what happens. First you take up with folks like Luther Driggers, whose main claim to fame is he's gettin' ready to poison us all. Then you drive around in an automobile that ain't fit to take a hog to market in, and now you tell us you're hangin' out with a nigger drag queen. I mean, really!" Some might think, though, that the neighbor is not one to talk: He moves from place to place, tapping other people's utility lines, writing bad checks, and opening whatever house he is living in—including one in which he is illegally squatting—to bogus historic tours, at times while occupied with one of his lady friends. "Beyond this door lies the mansion's master bedroom," his loyal guide will say, "and today the editors of Southern Accents magazine are photographing it for publication, and we cannot disturb them."

The rather somber title of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil doesn't suggest the stream of rococo personalities within, expressing themselves uninhibitedly in this city that is, as one grande dame puts it, "gloriously isolated" and likes it like that. Here old-fashioned formality ("This is a town where gentlemen own their own white tie and tails") is allied with an eccentricity so marked that the whole place seems to be in a permanent state of tilt. Besides Chablis (the transvestite who revenges herself on respectable black society by crashing the black debutante...

(The entire section is 933 words.)

Lee Lescaze (review date 4 February 1994)

SOURCE: "Sin and Hurt Mixed with Charm Down South," in The Wall Street Journal, February 4, 1994, p. A8.

[In the following excerpt, Lescaze praises Berendt's memorable characters in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil but laments the book's excessive focus on the Williams' trials and questions his blending of fact and fiction in a nonfiction work.]

Joe Odom, a genial rogue who calls himself the host of Savannah and specializes in freeloading, round-the-clock parties and passing bad checks, says Savannah has three basic rules:

—Always stick around for one more drink.

—Never go south of Gaston Street.

—Observe the high holidays—St. Patrick's Day and the day of the Georgia-Florida football game.

Not all Savannahians play by Mr. Odom's rules, of course, but his dedication to drinking, partying and a snobbery that ignores certain sections of the city is shared by most of the dozens of exotics who feature in John Berendt's entertaining account of good times, serious crime and raffish behavior, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

I don't know what this book will do for Savannah tourism overall, but it is certain to attract anyone with a taste for old houses and enduring vices.

One Savannahian who had both was Jim Williams, a controversial and flamboyant antiques dealer. How does it feel to be nouveau riche, Williams was asked. "It's the riche that counts," he replied. Of the old-money social elite, Williams told Mr. Berendt that if they share a single trait, "it's their love of money and their unwillingness to spend it."

Some members of old families fought with or snubbed Williams. But Williams was...

(The entire section is 739 words.)

Jonathan Yardley (review date 6 February 1994)

SOURCE: "Even in the Best of Cities," in Book World—The Washington Post, February 6, 1994, p. 3.

[Yardley is an American critic and biographer. In the following review, he praises Berendt's elegant prose and sharp eye in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.]

Herewith one of the most unusual books to come this way in a long time, and one of the best. Indeed it is two fine books for the price of one. The first is a portrait of Savannah, "a rare vestige of the Old South," a "hushed and secluded bower of a city on the Georgia coast." The second is a true-crime account of the murder of a young male hustler named Danny Hansford and the four murder trials undergone by...

(The entire section is 1264 words.)

Malcolm Jones, Jr. (review date 28 February 1994)

SOURCE: "Drag Queens, Death and Dixie," in Newsweek, Vol. CXXIII, No. 9, February 28, 1994, p. 62.

[In the following review, Jones describes Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as an affectionate portrait of Savannah, noting its popularity with Georgia audiences.]

Yankees have always been beguiled by Savannah. When Gen. William T. Sherman cut his incendiary swath through the South in 1864, he spared Savannah and presented it to President Lincoln as a Christmas present. A century later, Esquire columnist John Berendt showed up for a long weekend, wound up living there off and on for eight years and concluded his stay with a book-length bread-and-butter...

(The entire section is 750 words.)

Glenna Whitley (review date 20 March 1994)

SOURCE: "Voodoo Justice," in The New York Times Book Review, March 20, 1994, p. 12.

[In the following review, Whitley discusses Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as a unique combination of true-crime story and travel book.]

The voodoo priestess looked across the table at her wealthy client, a man on trial for murder: "Now, you know how dead time works. Dead time lasts for one hour—from half an hour before midnight to half an hour after midnight. The half-hour before midnight is for doin' good. The half-hour after midnight is for doin' evil…. Seems like we need a little of both tonight."

When he began living part of the year in...

(The entire section is 755 words.)

The New Yorker (review date 28 March 1994)

SOURCE: A review of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in The New Yorker, Vol. LXX, No. 6, March 28, 1994, p. 115.

[In the following review, the critic offers a laudatory assessment of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.]

Two stories make up [John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story]: the detailed account of a 1981 murder case involving Jim Williams, a prominent citizen of Savannah, and Danny Hansford, a young hustler who died in the study of Williams's antique-laden mansion; and a quirky travelogue devoted to the history, architecture, and citizenry of Savannah, where Berendt lived off and on during the...

(The entire section is 225 words.)

Valentine Cunningham (review date 14 August 1994)

SOURCE: "A Down-Home Twin Peaks," in The Observer, August 14, 1994, p. 16.

[In the following positive review, Cunningham argues that Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is as exuberant and entertaining as most fiction set in the American South.]

John Berendt's first book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is American travel-writing at its fictional-factional best. It's a bowl-you-over, enthralled-appalled trawl in the magical depths of Savannah, Georgia, the prettiest surviving corner of the Old South.

An editor and columnist from New York, Berendt knew the Savannah mixture by repute—as most of us do. On the one...

(The entire section is 1041 words.)