I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Savannah.  Called "The Hostess City of the South", it is also, perhaps the eccentric aunt once hidden away that no one knew about.  In Berendt's amazing book as a Yankee, the ultimate outsider, he explores a city that prefers not to change; a city that is difficult to reach and while visited, was at the time of his stay, not a tourist mecca like other Southern cities.  Savannah had preserved the old ways of doing things.  They had rescued the old buildings, kept big businesses from coming in, and highways from destroying the town.  It is a peculiar town that will experience change whether it wants to or not.

The narrator of this work of non-fiction is a magazine writer who has discovered that the cost of a meal is the same cost of an airline ticket, so he begins to travel.  On a trip to Charleston, he decides to visit Savannah and sets up a meeting with a Mrs. Hartly who will act as a guide.  He has a romantic and quirky notion of Savannah-based on Southern stereotypes and Johnny Mercer music (he grew up there).  Soon, he finds himself spending more and more time there and gets a place to stay.

The first thing you may notice is that the timeline seems a bit off.  It is.   The author played with it for artistic purposes, which may confuse you a bit, but will come together in the end.

While most of the book seems to be wrapped around the situation of the antique dealer Jim Williams, who owns the enviable Mercer House, who is accused of first-degree murder of a young man who works for him, Danny, who is a violent drug user, hustler, and his lover.  The D.A., Lawton,  has only tried one case before and lost it, and the man who got him elected Adler, hates Williams, with whom he has had a long feud over the restoration of buildings in Savannah.  Lawton does not seem to have much of a case and everyone wonders what he is thinking as it seems a clear case of self-defense or at the worst, second-degree murder.  But Williams has two strikes against him: his is gay, which is fine, so long as he keeps quiet about it, and two he did not come up from money but is a self-made man, who is beholden to no one.  Though, people do seem to like Williams a lot more than they like Adler, whose restoration projects are questionable.  Plus, Williams throws a very swank, exclusive Christmas party every year that everyone wants to go to.

Williams uses not just many lawyers, but a voodoo practitioner because everything helps.  And it seems that her help may eventually win him his freedom, as there will be more than one court case and you may figure out what happened that night, but you may never really know.

Some of the people he meets in Savannah are too incredible to be real, but this is the South, so I know they are.  One of the first characters you meet is Joe, a piano playing lawyer who, well, squats, in various nice houses, charges for tours, steals electricity and water.  The houses are open at all hours for everybody and a party is always going on.  He tries and fails many times at various businesses, mostly clubs and often has the law after him for bouncing checks.  But his personality is such that no one can hate him and everyone forgives him and continues to do business with him even after he has done them wrong.  He keeps promising to marry a singer Mandy, who travels a lot on the road performing and who opens up a club at one point with him.  He also had a bar with the famous Emma Kelly, whom Johnny Mercer dubbed "the woman of six thousand songs" because he guessed that seemed to be the number she knew.  She drove all over the place playing piano and singing, but the two parted ways when his creditors came after him through the business and he felt that was unfair to her.

Then there's Luther, the very weird man who once worked for the government and came up with the pest strip and various other inventions, which he got no money off of because he worked for the government at the time.  He carries around a bottle said to be of poison that he may empty into the city's water supply and kill them all at any time.  He also ties flies and such to strings and attaches them to his shirts, or will clip the wings of flies so they fly around in circles.

But one of the most wonderful characters of them all is The Lady Chablis.  When the narrator meets her he does not realize that she is a "T".  She receives hormone injections that give her breasts and other female attributes.  She has a boyfriend that satisfies her in every way.  And she is more woman than I will ever be in this life or the next.  She does a drag show, where she shows that she is more than just a stereotype and there is a hilarious scene where she crashes a black debutante ball the narrator is attending (and refused to take her to) and causes quite the scene.  She really does things her way.

Those from the South can tell you that each area, each city, is unique.  They talk differently, eat slightly differently, have a different way of doing things than the other cities.  They even have trouble getting along with each other.  Savannah is no different.  With the creation of this book and the subsequent movie, one can suppose the theory, the observer effect, that once something is observed it is changed by being observed.  Berendt, through no intention of his own, changed Savannah from a secluded city, to the tourist mecca it is today.  I was there is 1994 for a Psych Conference and sadly did not get much of a chance to look around.  This was right before the book came out.  I fell in love with Savannah then and vowed to see it again, but once I found out what had happened to it, some of the romance left it for me.  It was not the special place I had seen all those years ago, but something now lost to commercialism.  I was too late. But this book captures Savannah as she is in all her glory and sin and it is great to travel through her streets and meet her people within the pages of this book.

Quotes
Blue bloods are so inbred and weak.  All those generations of importance and grandeur to live up to.  No wonder they lack ambition.  I don’t envy them.  It’s only the trappings of aristocracy that I find worthwhile—the fine furniture, the paintings, the silver—the very nice things they have to sell when the money runs out.  And it always does.  Then all they’re left with is their lovely manners.
--John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 4)
But at heart he’s a southern chauvinist, very much a son of the region.  I don’t think he cares much for Yankees.
-- John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 5)
Drinking Madeira is a great Savannah ritual…It’s a celebration of failure, actually. The British sent whole shiploads of grapevines over from Madeira in the eighteenth century in hopes of turning Georgia into a wine-producing colony.  Savannah’s on the same latitude as Madeira.  Well, the vines died, but Savannah never lost its taste for Madeira. Or any other kind of liquor for that matter. Prohibition didn’t even slow things down here.  Everybody had a way of getting liquor, even little old ladies.  Especially the old ladies.  A bunch of them bought a Cuban rumrunner and ran it back and forth between here and Cuba.
-- John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 11)
I’ve never been sick a day in my life except for a common cold once in a while.  I just can’t be bothered. I don’t have the time.  Being sick is a luxury. 
-- John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 22)
We have a saying: If you go to Atlanta, the first question people ask you is “What’s your business?” In Macon they ask, “Where do you go to church?” In Augusta they ask your grandmother’s maiden name.  But in Savannah the first question people ask you is “What would you like to drink?”
-- John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 31)
Yesterday I pulled into a gas station, and this truck driver followed right behind me and pulled up alongside. He said, ‘Ma’am, I have been driving behind you for the last forty-five minutes, and I’ve been watching. First you did your makeup.  Then you did your hair.  Then you did your nails.  I just wanted to get up close and see what you looked like.’ He gave me a big wink and told me I was right pretty.  But then he said, ‘Let me ask you something.  I noticed every couple of minutes you’ve been reaching over and foolin’ with something on the seat next to you.  Whatcha got over there?’ ‘That’s my TV,’ I told him. ‘I can’t miss my soaps!’
- John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 45)
Savannah’s a real small town.  It’s so small everybody knows everybody else’s business, which can be a pain, but it also means we know who all the undercover cops are, which can be a plus.
-- John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 49)
“I dunno,’ he said with a sigh. ‘Sometimes I just can’t face going through with breakfast.’
-- John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 69)
 Someone once wrote that musicians are touched on the shoulder by God…and I think it’s true.  You can make other people happy with music , but you can make yourself happy too.  Because of my music, I have never known loneliness and never been depressed.
-- John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 88)
There’s another wonderful thing about being able to play music.. It’s something Johnny Mercer told me.  He said, ‘When you play songs, you can bring back people’s memories of when they fell in love.  That’s where the power lies’.
-- John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 90)
The South is one big drag show, honey, and they all know The Lady.
-- John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 102)
Well, I ain’t on food stamps yet, but I’m getting’ real close.  It’s a good thing y’all don’t pay me any more than you do, or I might never qualify.
- John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 120)
It’s damn hard work being a girl full time.
- John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 123)
‘Lord, you Yankees are something else,’, said Joe Odom, ‘We do our best to set you on the straight and narrow, 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! Your mama and daddy are gonna pitch a fit when they hear about this, and I reckon they’ll blame it all on me.’
-- John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 125)
Men from Savannah’s good families are born into a pecking order they can never get out of..unless they leave town forever.  They’ve got to go to a proper secondary school—Savannah Country Day or Woodberry Forest—then to a good enough college, and then come back home and join the team.  They’ve got to work for a certain company or a certain man and move up gradually.  They’ve got to marry a girl with the right background.  They’ve got to produce a proper little family.  They’ve got to join the Oglethorpe Club, the yacht club, and the golf club.  Finally, when they’re in their late fifties or early sixties, they’ve arrived, they’ve made it.  But by then they’re burned out, unhappy, and unfulfilled.  They cheat on their wives, hate their work, and lead dismal lives as respectable failures. Their wives, most of them, are little more than long-term prostitutes, the main difference being that when you factor in the houses, the cars, the clothes, and the clubs, Savannah’s  respectable wives get a lot more money per piece of ass that a whore does.
- John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 237)
‘Do you want me to explain what he’s got? ’No, not especially. But tell me—not that I really care about this—who won the game today? ’Georgia.  Nineteen to eight. ’Good,’ said Williams. ‘That means Sonny will be in high spirits.  It’s all so childish.  When Georgia loses, it absolutely destroys him. He goes into shock and can’t function for days.’ ‘In that case, I think you’ll get a vigorous defense out of him.  It was a solid victory.’ ‘Not too big a victory, I hope.  He might regard my trial as an anticlimax.’ ‘I don’t think the game was that important,’ I said. ‘It wasn’t a Southeastern Conference game.’ ‘Wonderful,’ said Williams. ‘I wouldn’t want him to be all distracted and daydreaming.  I want him to be frisky.  Yes.  That should work.’
-- John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 277)
Dr. Lindsley told me that an old house will defeat you if you try to restore it all at once—from roof to windows, weatherboarding, jacking it up, central heating, wiring.  You must think of doing one thing at a time.  First you say to yourself: Today I am going to think about leveling off the sills.  And you get all the sills leveled.  Then you turn your mind to the weatherboarding, and gradually you do all the weatherboarding.  Then you consider the windows.  Just one window at a time.  That window right there.  You ask yourself, ‘What’s wrong with that part of that window?’ You must do it in sections, because that’s the way it was built.  And then suddenly you find the whole thing completed.  Otherwise it will defeat you.
-- John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 299)
No, I think I’ll stay right here… My living in Mercer House pisses off all the right people.
-- John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 371)
It dawned on him that the sheriff would soon be arriving with a warrant for his arrest, so he pulled on a shirt and a pair of pants, climbed out a rear window, jumped into his van, and headed south on I-95.  He had no intention of spending the weekend with sheriffs, bail bondsmen, and lawyers.  Not this weekend anyway.  The Georgia-Florida football game was on Saturday, and Joe would definitely be there.  Nothing took precedence over the Georgia-Florida game.  Not even a felony indictment. 
-- John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil p 376)
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