I’m sure by now all of you know the overwhelming majority of the books featured on this blog have been borrowed from the public library. What you probably didn’t know is believe it or not, I have a huge personal library. A few weeks ago I was in the mood to read one of my own books and not something checked out from the library. Craving something long ignored and unread I reached for my copy of John Berendt’s 90s mammoth best-seller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. When I announced this to my favorite Facebook group Silent Book Club, joking I was one of 12 people left in North America who’d never read the book and figured it was high time for me to do so, my post generated over 500 comments and impressions, virtually all of them positive. Not surprisingly, several of my friends chaimed in, praising Berendt’s book. As for me, I quickly realized after only a few pages I’d made the right choice. Published 25 years ago, not only has Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil withstood the test of time it’s an outstanding book.
Since Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil been around forever, I won’t spend much time describing it. Back in the early 80s, John Berendt, a New York City-based writer relocated to Savannah, Georgia and ended up rubbing elbows with a dizzing array of memorable eccentrics, ranging from a loveable con man with a heart of gold to an African American drag queen gifted with an almost preternatural ability to charm, ingratiate and mortify. (Frequently the same person during a single sitting. ) Much like the city of Tokyo became the third lead character in Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Lost in Translation so Savannah and its colorful inhabitants serve as the focal point in Berendt’s book.
Of all the cities in the world, why is Savannah such a mecca for human oddities? Anticipating the reader’s question, Berendt looks to the world of horticulture to explain why.
For me, Savannah’s resistance to change was its saving grace. The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large. It grew inward, too, and in such a way that 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.
Even though it was published a quarter century ago, I found Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil surprisingly relevent since it touches on race relations, LGBTQ life, gentrification, old money versus new money, imperfectness of the criminal justice system and class conflict. These issues are as important today as they were when Berendt wrote about them decades ago.
But perhaps my biggest takeaway from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is good writing never goes out of style. It’s one thing for an author to move to a strange city and successfully identify its local eccentrics. It’s quite another to get them talking and to turn around tell their respective stories to the world. (According to Berendt, the key is “always stick around for one more drink. That’s when things happen. That’s when you find out everything you want to know.”) But the real challenge is to convey those tales with subtlety and sophistication. That is why come December you’ll probably see Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil included in my year-end list of favorite nonfiction books.