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Local Color™

For me, Savannah’s resistance to change was its saving grace … its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world.

—John Berendt

I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.

—Flannery O’Connor

In the early 1980s, wracked by the ennui of yet another high-priced Manhattan veal-and-radicchio dinner, Esquire columnist John Berendt turned his eye to the South and began spending his disposable income on supersaver fares to Savannah, Georgia, instead. Captivated by the haunting allure of what author Margaret Mitchell once called “that gently mannered city by the sea,” Berendt started living in Savannah part-time. He spent seven years writing a nonfiction narrative, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, about the town and its inhabitants, and faster than you can say Prince of Tides, the book became an enormous success. It spent more than sixty weeks on the bestseller lists, was called “perhaps the publishing phenomenon of the year,” and was one of three finalists for the nonfiction 1995 Pulitzer Prize. Savannah locals also love it, and why not: although the cemetery statue that graces Midnight’s cover had to be removed due to the armies of tourists trampling the nearby graves, the book has boosted tourism in Georgia and Savannah by millions of dollars. In fact, according to the Georgia Department of Trade and Tourism, tourism in Savannah, the “Hostess City of the South,” is up 46 percent since the book’s publication.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil certainly seems to have all the right ingredients for a postmodern Southern Gothic success: take one wealthy cosmopolite caught up in the lurid murder trial of his homosexual lover. Add one mild-mannered lunatic recluse; one vibrant, teetotalin’, Baptist singer; one voodoo queen; an irrepressibly charming bon vivant/con artist; and one transsexual drag queen who crashes cotillions. Toss in assorted aging Southern belles and slightly batty society matrons, a famous poet with a tragic childhood, and a pinch of Civil War history. Keep stirring until you have just the right mixture of tradition and kinkiness. Garnish with Spanish moss, moonlight, and magnolias.

The only thing missing is someone named Beauregard.

Its not that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil isn’t an entertaining enough read. The book tells the story of a sensational murder case and the resulting scandal, which serves as a crucible for the manners and mores of a community where decadence is inextricably intertwined with propriety. So why not enjoy the book, and (to paraphrase Georgia’s most famous pop culture icon), worry about the clichés and caricatures tomorrow? Just because the aging Southern belles constantly seem on the verge of babbling about “white woods” or you keep confusing the local recluse with Boo Radley is no reason to quibble with the bestsellin’ bandwagon.

The world he depicts is all very aristocratic—those Savannahians may be wacky, but they sure are rich!

But should your languor wear off, you may find yourself thinking that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is essentially a New Yorker’s evocation of Southern local color, or perhaps more precisely, of what Southern local color is supposed to be. In other words, Savannah is a place where the nuts aren’t annoying, they’re eccentric; where the rich are comfortingly venal, in an entertaining, harmlessly indolent sort of way; and where the standard of gracious living is hospitable yet insular enough to be enjoyed and condescended to simultaneously. Instead of a joyless Rainbow Coalition of resentful interest groups, Savannah’s population resembles a delightful Mardi Gras, where even outsiders can join the party. No wonder tourism is up: ultimately, Savannah comes across as a sort of Sophisticate’s Southern Fantasy Town.

As Berendt points out in Chapter II, in addition to writing for Esquire, he was the editor of New York magazine for three years, and his book unquestionably plays to an analogous yuppie audience. Like that magazine, which showcases the latest in luxury consumer goods in the ads it runs alongside articles on the hippest elite getaways, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil performs comparable services in its instruction in matters of taste and lifestyle, all the while transmogrifying Savannah into the perfect commodified city. The city’s elegance, sophistication, and conviviality reflect well on the aficionado, and unlike New Orleans, its tastes, fortunately, don’t especially appeal to the masses. There’s no French Quarter tackiness here, and there doesn’t seem to be much fear of running into fat tourists from Ohio, wearing neon shorts and screaming “Hey mister, gimme some beads!” Berendt refers to other out-of-towners only vaguely, as “busloads of tourists” who appear in his narrative merely to get sanitized anecdotes from their guides. “Bless their boring little hearts,” says a native. In contrast, Berendt casts himself as every tourist’s dream—the cool outsider all the cool insiders take to their hearts. He’s accepted and welcomed into all layers of society, and best of all, by the elite. He alone sees the “real” Savannah, the exotic, undiscovered city, which he both celebrates and reduces to a consumer object at the same time.

The world he depicts is all very aristocratic—those Savannahians may be wacky, but they sure are rich! They live in elegant mansions in elegant, tree-shaded squares, and save themselves from dullness by carrying on behind their elegant facades with quintessential Faulkerian decadence. It’s a town where joie de vivre is elevated to an art level, and good taste is the ultimate redemption. Joe Odom, the perpetually delightful rapscallion, may not pay his bills, but he certainly knows how to decorate, as Berendt admiringly details: “On the parlor floor I saw a fine English sideboard, several good eighteenth-century oil portraits, a pair of antique silver sconces, a Steinway grand piano, and two or three impressive oriental carpets.”

The yuppie fantasy finds its epitomization in Jim Williams, a country boy who made millions in savvy real-estate investments, buys the grandest mansion in town, throws the best parties, and completely dazzles Old Savannah. He’s got both money and style, and everything about him conveys it. His eyes are so black “they are like the tinted windows of a sleek limousine,” his house occupies “an entire city block,” he travels to Europe on the QE 2, sends home “whole container loads of important paintings and fine English furniture,” and goes about indulging his taste for grandeur. “What I enjoy most,” he opines, “is living like an aristocrat, without the burden of having to be one. Blue bloods are so inbred and weak… It’s only the trappings of aristocracy that I find worthwhile—the fine furniture, the paintings, the silver—the very things they have to sell when the money runs out. And it always does.” Berendt’s audience, reading those words while taking a break from the daily rat race for acquisition and status, caught up in the pervasive American love/hate relationship with the upper class, can feel a shivery thrill of admiration for Williams’s blasé disdain. Williams’s first speech, significantly, is a disquisition on the difference between new money and old, and how he’s been able to pass himself off as the latter. “How does it feel to be nouveau riche?” one of the blue bloods snidely asks. “It’s the riche that counts,” Williams retorts, winning that round, Berendt’s readers know, thanks to his wallet and his connoisseur’s eye. His exquisite taste is established in the first chapter with impeccable credentials: not only has Architectural Digest devoted six pages to his home, but none other than the century’s very Icon of Class, Jacqueline Onassis, once paid a visit, caressed his Fabergé trinkets, and coveted his possessions. Jackie O liked his stuff! It doesn’t get any better than that. Even after his conviction for shooting his 21-year-old lover, Danny Hansford, Williams comports himself with nearly unruffled sophistication and sang-froid: he conducts his antiques business from jail, dines on Nanking export ware while awaiting his verdict, and never gives up his King Edward cigarillos.

Given the overwhelming snob appeal of the first chapter, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Berendt doesn’t include a whole lot of the hoi polloi in his book. He spends most of his time with the rich and risqué. Anyone who doesn’t obviously have a lot of money, like Emma Kelly, the Baptist piano player, or Luther Drigger, the recluse, is assigned the part of a “local character.” It somehow starts to seem appropriate that the only redneck of any significance, Danny Hansford, gets shot. Too many others would spoil the glamor of the moss-hung oaks and the house preservation societies. Berendt may have left New York, but his milieu remains resolutely sophisticated. Overpriced, old-hat radicchio may have driven him to seek new adventures, but he evidently never has to switch to the closest Southern counterpart, iceberg lettuce, all the while he’s sub-Mason-Dixon, and he certainly never stoops to grits.

The book appeals because it showcases a place that is at once foreign and familiar, time-locked and timeless.

It’s also noticeable that most blacks are accorded similar treatment. Martin Luther King, Jr. called Savannah the “most desegregated city in the South,” and racial relations, Berendt says, are remarkably civil, although he points out that the high black-on-black crime rate is indicative of the despair that lies beneath the apparent complacency of the black community. But for all Berendt’s sympathy, the blacks who make it into his book seem to be there primarily for atmosphere. The two most important black characters, Minerva the Voodoo Queen, and Chablis, the drag performer, are also undeniably the zaniest. They’re meant to be screamingly funny; yet they come across more as emblems of the author’s tolerance and as totems of the city’s decadent exoticness. The most moving portrait is that of Dr. Henry Collier, the first black doctor to perform surgery at the local hospital, who dreams up the black debutante cotillion in the 1940s and continues to run it with great dignity. But other blacks are relegated to walk-on roles, most literally in the person of Mr. Glover, a (what else) former Pullman porter, whose employer left him ten dollars a week in his will to walk his dog. Mr. Glover, in collusion with the local judge, has been “walking the dog” long after the canine’s demise. How eccentric! How Gothic!

And so Berendt holds up the city as a shimmering bauble, a Fitzgeraldian “eternal Carnival by the Sea.” The ever-lasting party in Savannah continues in all its glamour and wackiness, with the tunes of native son Johnny Mercer as a soundtrack. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil appeals because it showcases a place that is at once foreign and familiar, time-locked and timeless, and, of course, beautiful and “grotesque.” Berendt’s portrait emphasizes what people like about the South, and downplays what they can’t abide: Savannah is presented as a microcosm of delightfully dissolute and effortlessly genteel “characters”; devoid of Ewells and Snopeses and other members of the trailer-park set; and fairly free of unpleasant reminders of racial discord. The whiff of decay about the magnolias just makes it all the more alluring to the cosmopolitan reader, conveying the acceptable vision of the South—romantic Dixie with all its charm and eccentricity intact.