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 antiques 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 practionor, 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 the 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 lifetime of 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 a 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.

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