John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a southern-gothic masterpiece that borders ever so slightly on gonzo journalism—though it falls short of passing into that bizarro realm. Reading it spurred me to contemplate the border between the two major realms of nonfiction writing; the DMZ between the ordered lands of subject-first traditional journalism and the wild “bat country” of writer-first gonzo. It wasn’t a very long contemplation, of course, as Midnight in the Garden falls into the same tradition of literary journalism as Capote, Junger, or Bowden, though the author’s prominent role nudges it closer to “Thompson” territory than Junger’s or Bowden’s.
This was my second time reading Berendt’s classic work of nonfiction. My first reading came in college, soon after the release of Clint Eastwood’s flavorless movie. I remember being surprised at the author’s large role in both versions. The book’s slight gonzo flavor—amplified somewhat in the film version—emanates less from the mere presence of the author but more from his perspective on the proceedings. Berendt’s the perfect “outsider” character, the baffled newcomer who asks all the questions the audience wants to ask.
But Berendt isn’t merely a conduit for exposition; he has opinions about Savannah. It’s bittersweet irony that maybe the most famous book about a town known for its mistrust of outsiders should be written by one. Happily, Berendt never judges the town; he simply lets Savannah be Savannah, and that’s where the book retreats from being gonzo, because (to my mind) gonzo is all about the writer’s opinions; it’s about agitating, rabble-rousing, instigating, poking the beast to see what happens. Berendt does none of these things, instead opting to report (in admirable detail) on what he encounters, though his reporting often betrays a certain mischief on his part, a delighted amusement with the countless eccentrics that populate this frozen-in-the-antebellum city by the sea.
If you were to sketch a graph of literary journalism, I suspect Midnight in the Garden would reside somewhere near Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, another piece of astonishing reportage that reads like a novel. I liken Berendt’s book to Capote’s less because of the primary subject matter (murder in a small town) and more because of the author’s important role in the proceedings. In contrast with Berendt, Capote (I’d argue) assumes a larger role in the lives of his book’s leads, murderers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. It’s Capote’s growing empathy for them—especially Smith—that lends the book a real sense of humanity.
Berendt imbues Midnight in the Garden with a similar humanity, but he keeps his book’s defacto lead—nouveau riche antiques baron and accused murderer Jim Williams—at arm’s length. Instead, Berendt reserves his most open affection for the rest of Savannah’s weirdos: charming huckster Joe Odom; flamboyant performer Lady Chablis; bayou witch Minerva; and goofball lawyer Sonny Seiler, caretaker of the University of Georgia’s famed bulldog mascot, Uga.
But Berendt feels the greatest warmth for his story’s most pathetic figure, bisexual hustler Danny Hansford, the man Jim Williams killed. Class and privilege run like a faultline through Savannah, and Berendt’s book ably captures its damaging effects in almost every chapter. Sometimes the lower classes strike back, such as when Lady Chablis crashes a debutante ball—maybe the book’s most memorable shenanigan—but more often than not, they’re fodder for the whims of the rich. Williams and Hansford are the perfect avatars for this exploitation. Hansford may have been a belligerent redneck, but he was undoubtedly plagued by all manner of emotional problems that he, as a lower-class guy in the south, basically had no means to process. He was Williams’ plaything, and he got cast aside when Williams grew weary of him.
It’s the duty of journalists to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Berendt feels Danny’s pain, and his portrayal of the ending—Williams’ death as a righting of the cosmic scales, represented by the famous “Bird Girl” statue on the book’s cover—speaks to the author’s desire to comfort the afflicted.
Midnight in the Garden is one helluva great book. It’s no surprise that it’s a classic. It deserves to be.