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."
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.
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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...
(The entire section is 346 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 933 words.)
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...
(The entire section is 739 words.)
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 his sometime employer and lover, Jim Williams, "a successful dealer in antiques and a restorer of old houses." No doubt it is this second to which most readers will be attracted, inasmuch as the case offers everything from sex to violence to voodoo, but caveat emptor: the first story will blow your mind.
Being a reader neither of New York magazine, of which John Berendt was once editor, nor of Esquire, for which he writes a column, I confess to being caught totally off guard by Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The reader ignorant of Berendt's skills is in for equal (which is to say ample) measures of surprise and delight, for his prose is both elegant and seamless while his eye is as...
(The entire section is 1264 words.)
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 note, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
At first glance, Berendt's nonfiction portrait of Georgia's oldest city looks like anything but a proper thank-you. The characters he celebrates include a drag queen, a piano-playing deadbeat, a man who walks an imaginary dog and another fellow who's said to possess enough poison to spike Savannah's entire water supply. Those are the warm-up acts. At the heart of the book lies a celebrated murder case in which Jim Williams, a socially prominent and autocratic antique dealer, was accused of shooting his young male lover. Savannahians still rehash this decade-old case, and small wonder. No Gothic novelist could concoct a riper tale: the suave but sinister Williams went...
(The entire section is 750 words.)
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 Savannah, Ga., John Berendt, a columnist for Esquire and a former editor of New York magazine, was looking for—what? Respite from the big city? A charming little Southern town dripping with humidity and history to observe as fodder for a novel? What he found was a cultured but isolated back-water, a town where who your great-grandparents were still matters, where anti-Yankee resentments are never far from the surface and where writers from New York are invited to midnight voodoo ceremonies in graveyards.
The book he has written based on his eight years of living part-time in Savannah is a peculiar combination of true crime and travelogue. The first half of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is about...
(The entire section is 755 words.)
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 nineteen-eighties. Although the twin narratives are not always seamlessly joined, and the prose suffers occasionally from overripeness, there is plenty of local color here to keep the reader up at night. An inscrutable voodoo practitioner, a bubba-boosting defense attorney, and a cadging piano-bar owner are memorable, but it is in the chapters given over to Chablis, a tough, sassy transvestite performer, that Berendt transforms his book from an amusing document into a work of art. Summing up her burgeoning stage career, Chablis tells the author, "The South is one big drag show, honey, and they all know The Lady. They all know The Doll." Thanks to Berendt, the rest of the country can now know her, too.
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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 hand, the lovely old squares and homes that General Sherman did not burn down in the Civil War, the town where the poet Conrad Aiken, a friend of T S Eliot's, is buried and Johnny ('Moon River') Mercer came from. On the other hand, the place where murderous old Cap'n Flint handed Billy Bones the map of Treasure Island before he died shouting for more rum, and where Hard-Hearted Hannah, the Vamp of Savannah, did her dire worst down on the seashore with a watering can (she was pouring water on a drowning man).
Berendt dropped in for a short visit and got utterly hooked on the vivid contrasts of tone that still mark the place, the farcical striations of class and style and morals that comprise modern Savannah, GA....
(The entire section is 1041 words.)