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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – Book Review

Written by: John Berendt
Published by: Random House

Ah, Savannah. You’ve got to love a town where the first thing the residents ask is “What would you like to drink?” If you visit this port city, you will see the garden squares in the historic district with their grand houses and their pre-Civil War architecture, walk the cobblestones of River Street and view the paintings at the Telfair Museum of Art. But this is only the surface of Savannah. Jim Williams, a main character in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil says to the author John Berendt, “You mustn’t be taken in by the moonlight and magnolias. There’s more to Savannah than that. Things can get very murky.” And Mr. Williams knew this all too well.

Jim Williams was an antique dealer, a restorer of historical buildings, and owner of Mercer House, one the finest mansions in a town known for its attractive houses. He was a pillar of Savannah society even though his wealth was recently acquired. His Christmas party was considered the social event of the year. And one night in his office Williams shot Danny Hanford, a young, violent, and highly desirable “acquaintance” of his. Williams said it was self-defense, but he was still charged with first-degree murder. While this true crime account and the unbelievable story of the murder trials is captivating, you only get to it halfway into the book.

[ad#longpost]The book’s main objective is giving the reader an in-depth look into the character of Savannah: its history, its lovely homes and gardens, and its people. Especially the people. You will meet characters that are at the top of Southern eccentricity. There’s Joe Odom, a piano-playing gentleman squatter who charms everyone he meets so they don’t notice when he cons them. Luther Driggers glues thread to house flies, tries to make goldfish fluoresce, and has a poison that could kill everyone in Savannah. And of course there is the Lady Chablis, the Grand Empress of Savannah, a flawless black drag queen who does what she likes when she likes. This is only a sampling of the cast of characters that inhabit this book. They just prove that real life is stranger than fiction.

The real strength of the book is its power to engage the reader. The lyric quality of the descriptions of Savannah and its inhabitants draw one in and give the reader a real sense of being there. Berendt also portrays the people and their eccentricities in the book without condescension or derision. He celebrates their oddness, but also manages to inject a measure of sadness. While the city is beautiful, unemployment and crime are up. The people are colorful, but they live a life of self-imposed isolation. This book is a must read. This book has so enchanted people about Savannah that the city now has twice the number of tourists. That’s how good a book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is.

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