Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil

Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil (1994) by John Berendt, is a now-classic uncategorizable nonfiction book that is credited with having increased tourism to Savannah, Georgia. It is part memoir, part travelogue, part true-crime, and, though many of the real-life characters that populate the book are queer, it felt homophobic. Likewise, several characters are described as fat, but only one was described in a neutral or positive way.

In the first half of the book, Berendt introduces us to some of the people he meets while he’s staying in Savannah–the most time is spent writing about Jim Williams, the antique dealer who restored the famous Mercer House and who is, in this part of the book, described as a “bachelor.” We also meet the piano-playing scofflaw lawyer Joe Odom, a competing house restorer Lee Adler, and the drag queen Lady Chablis who uses the author as her chauffeur.

The second half begins with a death. Jim Williams admits to shooting his employee, an unstable young man named Danny, who Jim claims to have hired to work for him in his furniture repair shop and is known for excessive drinking and using drugs. Danny is also a sex worker appreciated by both men and women. Jim claims that Danny had drawn a gun on him and that he only shot Danny in self-defense, but there were no other witnesses, and Jim is charged with murder.

In the second half of the book, Berendt goes into great detail about the trials, where Jim is outed by some of Danny’s friends. During the rare times that Jim is not behind bars over the next several years of legal trouble, he takes Berendt to meet someone he considers an integral part of his legal team–Minerva the voodoo priestess, who Berendt describes as “like a sack of flour” with a round face and a cotton dress stretched tight over her round body. Minerva is constantly telling Jim to get strange things, like water that hasn’t run through a pipe, or a parchment, and then she is burning candles and muttering incantations.

I don’t like that Berendt describes the queer people and the fat people in the book as curiosities–like the city is a circus and he’s the ringmaster describing the strange things happening in each ring. It feels like he’s reporting on the oddities of life and weird people in Savannah, which is so different from “civilized” New York. There is not one positive portrayal of a queer person–even Chablis embarrasses Berendt when she crashes the Black Debutante ball that he is invited to. Maybe some of my discomfort with the books is the fact that being queer is so much more accepted now than it was then, and maybe it’s a good thing that a Pulitzer finalist in 1994 included the stories of queer people, but reading it still made me uncomfortable, like I was a voyeur watching the lives of strange Savannahians.

And there’s at least one use of the n-word. Race is discussed openly, which is necessary, but Berendt repeats a white character’s inappropriate use of the slur, which is unacceptable.

The only semi-positive portrayal of a fat person is of Mandy, Joe Odom’s girlfriend, who Berendt describes as beautiful and voluptuous. He reports that she was crowned Miss BBW– Big Beautiful Woman –in Las Vegas the year before. I suppose I have to give him a little credit for using the term and not making fun of Mandy. In 1994 that was the preferred term of many fat women, including me.

Unless you really want to read true-crime, or have a particular interest in Savannah, I don’t recommend Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil.

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