“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”: Book review of sorts


I picked up the book at the Bombay airport. I always thought that people who say that they buy books at the airport are the pompous lot for whom the height of literature is ‘seven secrets of highly successful people’ or something along those lines. But it really is true that once you’ve checked in your luggage and have to serve that mandatory time waiting for your flight, browsing books at the store seems to be the only decent self redeeming thing to do after gawking at a firang chick for twenty minutes.
It seems like the government is forcing people to read and actually succeeding too. The sad thing is that now these shops sell DVDs also. So someone actually asked for What’s Your Rashi while I was browsing through the books. I would have been sure to raise a terrorist threat alarm but for the fact that the people in question here were two gentle looking maidens in their early seventies.

It is a cliché done to death that a book should not be judged by its cover. I disagree. More often than not a tacky or loud cover is an indication of the stupidity it is trying to hide and more often than not books with interesting and subtle covers turn out to be quite decent. Of course it would be idiotic to think of it as a universal rule but it did ring true for me after I finished reading Midnight… It had the photograph of a weathered tombstone on its cover. One with a statue of girl with sad eyes holding two saucers in her hands and the shadow of trees above. Although I have to admit the name itself did not appear to be too imaginative to me. Till then I had never heard of the book so had no way of actually knowing that it holds the record for being a New York Times bestseller for the longest period of time.

The back cover is again a pretty good indication of what to expect from the book. The louder the praises, the greater should be your suspicion. The worst of the books always market themselves by using adjectives that someone supposedly famous has used about the book like ‘excellent, spellbinding, masterpiece’ etc., each followed by an increasing number of exclamation marks as if you are expected to fall to your knees in reverence of the gospel in your hands. Even worse (if there is indeed a category of worse than the worst!) are those which loosely throw around human emotions like popcorn. If a the book says that it is a story of love, endurance, tragedy, redemption and the indefeasible human spirit; drop it right at that instant. Thankfully, the cover of Midnight…talked about it being a travel book with some off-centered sex, murder, trial and mystery. The next step is to read the first few pages. If you cannot get through the first few pages standing there, you’ll never get around reading the book. Unless of course you already know the book to be a classic and will force yourself to read the first few pages and acquire the taste. That was the case with Marquez for me. But once I got through the first few pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude, I was hooked for life.

But coming back to Midnight.., the first thing which catches your eye is that in the introduction John Berendt says quite clearly that this is not a work of fiction but a result of his journalistic endevours. Really? Doesn’t the cover mention an array of weirdest characters, a murder mystery, a sex scandal and what not? Yes, it does and yes all of it actually exists or existed or happened. So it is time to bring another dead cliché to our use, truth indeed can be stranger than fiction! Midnight..is set in the small American town of Savannah. In early eighties, John Berendt working in the big apple as an editor of magazines like Esquire discovered the joys of low cost domestic airlines. Soon he was flying to far off places cheaper than the cost of his average meals in fancy NYC restaurants. On one of such bohemian trips, he discovered the pleasurable pastures of Savannah, a town in the southern state of Georgia. Soon enough he was so charmed by the town’s architectural and anthropological marvels that he decided to write a book on it. He kept coming for more visits and eventually rented an apartment there spending half of the year, the other half in New York (to perhaps retain his sanity and perspective!).

The best part about the book for someone like me who is generally averse to non fiction is that it is written in the style of a novel. What is the style of a novel? I guess something which has sequential chapters each of which deals with one particular thread of the story. Also, and perhaps, more importantly in the first place, there is a clearly identifiable story with a beginning and an end and not just a random collection of thoughts coming in one’s mind like this piece is turning out to be!

What makes Midnight..a relish is of course not just the fact that it has a coherent story but that the story has a number of peculiar and interesting characters which would be more expectedly found in a Murakami or a Marquez world. The story is told in first person but in a number of places the narrator in not present and the reader can unobtrusively peek into the weirdly funny and entertaining world of the residents of Savannah.

The star, the king-pin on whose shoulders the story of Midnight…rests is Jim Williams, a “nouveau riche”, an antique collector and dealer, restorer of heritage structures; and as the second half of the book reveals, possibly a murderer. Jim Williams made a fortune through a series of fortuitous and high risk deals. He settled in Savannah and became the toast of the social circles with his lavish parties but in the process he managed to ruffle quite a few feathers with his peculiarities and haughty attitude. A major portion of the book revolves around Jim Williams and his trial(s) for murder. En route we encounter a bumbling District Attorney hell bent on getting a conviction and the endlessly changing defense strategies of Jim Williams, only a portion of which came from the legal fraternity or the world we can claim to be familiar with. Incidentally, Jim Williams holds the record in the state of Georgia for being the only person to have been tried four times for the same crime.

An even more delightful and unbelievable character is that of Joe Odom, a partner in a tax law firm who quits and moves his office to Savannah to in his words, ‘mix business with pleasure’. But in Savannah, Joe, a serial womanizer finds occupation as a piano player and a tour guide entertaining people and hosting open door parties every night. More often than not he is giving paid tours to people of the house he is living in at that time and more often than not he is not paying rent even in cases where the landlord is aware of his living there. Sample as an example of the carefree nature of Joe, this account given by his girlfriend and fourth wife-in-waiting, Mandy. One night while they are sleeping, Mandy hears certain noises downstairs. She is afraid that it might be a burglary; after all they did not have a lock at the front door, lest it may discourage any visitors. She wakes up Joe and asks him to check. Joe not bothered a bit says, it could be anybody. He shouts, without getting up from the bed, “Angus? That you, Angus?” When there is no reply, he assures Mandy, “Well, if we got a burglar, his name ain’t Angus” and goes back to sleep.

The third most prominent character in Midnight...is Frank, a negro more popularly known in his cross dressing avatar as Lady Chablis, the drag queen. In the racially conscious town of Savannah, it is no mean task for Lady Chablis to carry on her performances not to mention her occasional appearances at formal social events.
There are also a few supporting character like the guy who walks an invisible dog or the guy whose idea of pets is flies on a string leash and whose Columbian ambition is to breed goldfish who’ll glow in the dark. The reasoning behind this brilliant inspiration is how trippy the fish floating in the darkness of the night clubs would appear to drunk people. Awesome! No? There are some more wildly eccentric and amusing characters and what makes the book funnier to read is how little the people of Savannah are shocked by these characters. The ‘normal people’ are mildly amused but not disturbed by the ‘colourful characters’ even as they carry on with their regular lives around them almost without noticing them. In the introduction, John Berendt tries to explain the rationale. He attributes the presence of so many larger than life characters in Savannah to its inward looking, gossip loving and eccentricity tolerant people.

I think I got carried away so much with introducing the outrageous characters that I almost forgot to mention that Midnight...is a very good travelogue as well. The lyrical prose with which John Berendt describes the architecture of the old buildings, the picturesque squares and nice small town quaintness of Savannah, makes you want to pack your bags and go off to Savannah for the next holiday. Evidently the book had the same effect on a number of other people as well and the tourist inflow in Savannah increased by manifolds a few months after the release of Midnight…in 1994. In the introduction to the new paperback edition, John Berendt assures that the tourist inflow has not ravished it as is usually the case, and Savannah remains a beautiful, eccentric and charming small town.

Post Script: The book was adapted into a movie with the same name and directed by Clint Eastwood. I haven’t seen it but according to most people, it didn’t turn out as well as the book mostly because some things are best left to imagination. As venerable Ebert said for the movie, “something ineffable is lost just by turning on the camera: Nothing we see can be as amazing as what we've imagined.”


mikimbizi said...

I had read this last year because I found the cover intriguing. It is a good read especially the way he describes the people, the cemetery and the town.
Nice, detailed read. I enjoyed your reviews very much.
Awaiting more.

Best wishes.