Did you read the wildly popular Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil by John Berendt when it came out in 1994? Did you see the movie of the same name, produced by Clint Eastwood and starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack three years later? Well I did neither at the time, but I knew they were both excellent, so I selected the book for this month’s meeting of the Narrative Nonfiction Book Club.
The best-selling true crime story Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was shocking when it came out more than twenty years ago because it featured a gay man accused of murdering his bisexual friend/assistant and a transgender drag queen, in a time and place when those subjects were not written about. The first half of the book describes the city of Savannah, Georgia, its history, architecture and several of its colorful characters whom the author got to know over eight years of living there part-time. The second half of the book focuses on the murder trials of Jim Williams, the first person in the state to be tried four times for the same crime.
I gathered that five out of the 11 people who came to the meeting had read the book when it was new. Most were happy to read it again, however, because it is a captivating story expertly rendered with the essence of a thrilling novel. With so many having read the book twice, it prompted a very interesting conversation about how times have changed and how the readers themselves had changed. We discussed how the author’s experience as a columnist for Esquire and an editor of New York magazines influenced his organization and writing style in his first book. We also wondered about how skewed his perspective was on his adopted part-time city. Many Savannahians welcomed this northerner warmly, thrusting him into their party or touring him through their town, but we got to really know only the eccentric ones. Of course, they make for the most interesting read.
We had a terrific discussion this month and I know at least a few of us are now hoping to visit Savannah someday. One group member highly recommends Berendt’s other book, The City of Falling Angels, which is about the city of Venice.
Join us next time for In the Heart of the Sea: the tragedy of the whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick. Did you read it before? Reading it again and discussing it with an engaged group like the Narrative Nonfiction Book Club is sure to reveal something new. Join us on Thursday, February 2 at 10:00 a.m. in the Hermann room. Copies are available at the reference desk.
P.S. Lady Chablis, the transgender drag queen who became quite famous after the publication of this book and starred as herself in the movie, died in September, 2016 at age 59, according to CNN.