In one of the greatest instances of luck to ever rain on a writer with a bionic eye for detail and a canine sense for sniffing out bedazzled characters in absurd situations, journalist John Berendt just happened to be living in and jotting notes about Savannah, Georgia, in 1981 when one of the city’s largest looming residents shot his hot-head assistant to death.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is Berendt’s Travel Channel-True Crime hybrid, a collection of quirky Savannahian character features that is interrupted in favor of an intriguing murder-or-self defense mystery.
Berendt was a New Yorker, fascinated by the culture of Savannah, Georgia, when he set up dual citizenship between the cities. The writer for Esquire seemingly had the good sense to carry a notebook in his pocket and say yes to every invitation. He also, seemingly, is one of those people who always falls in the path of the right fiery drag queen or piano-playing traveling party.
His story starts with an introduction to the character who will drive the tale. John Williams is a Faberge fan, an antiques dealer living like an aristocrat in the historic Mercer House. He’s a controversial character involved with the city’s restoration projects. He also throws a yearly Christmas party, an event that has residents clamoring for an invite. Williams has taken in a young, barely-legal hustler Danny Hansford, described by a woman he spontaneously screwed as a “walking streak of sex.” The 20-year-old serves as Williams’ assistant, a job that seems to include the occasional bump and grind. But the kid is often hopped up on this or that and occasionally goes bull-in-china-shop loco on Williams’ expensive collection.
One night Williams shoots the kid, describing it as self defense. But enough of the facts are murky enough to land Williams a murder charge.
In the interim, Berendt meets neighbor Joe Odom. This former lawyer is a walking-talking fun factory. His door is always open to revelers and he is unfazed by waking up in a bed with two post-coital strangers. He pogos checks and changes residences, squatting here and there and lifting electricity from a neighbor. He opens nightclubs and opens different nightclubs. And when he is called into court for writing bad checks, he takes time out to council one of the plaintiffs.
It is Odom who seems keenly aware that Berendt is going to turn this story into a book, even before the murders. He’s got dibs on playing himself in the movie and occasionally does something akin to breaking the fourth wall to discuss his role in the final draft.
There is also a drag queen named Chablis, who likes to stir the shit. She likes straight white boys and adopts Berendt as her personal chauffeur. In a story where Berendt plays an almost silent observer, it is only Chablis who draws him out onto the page when she damn-near ruins his reputation at a cotillion. There is also a voodoo practitioner who is using a little graveyard dirt and chanting to try to help Williams through the trial.
Even without the murder, Berendt would have had a decent story. He has a great eye for detail and inflection and for story-worthy moments. You can actually hear the distinct drawls of his characters. This could have just been a very detailed sketch of a city that he describes as untouched by external forces. It is a great example of Truman Capote-style literary non-fiction, maybe the best I’ve read. It’s also a great example of what can happen when you keep a pen on your person and your eyes wide open.