What do the following have in common?
- An outrageous, irrepressible drag queenA piano-playing attorney who stays one step ahead of creditors by serially squatting in local mansions
- An antiques dealer tried for one murder four times over nine years who enlists the help of a local voodoo priestess in his defense
- The gravesites of song writer Johnny Mercer and poet Conrad Aiken
- A college bulldog mascot dressed for game day in suit and tie
- A local debutante whose mother hires Peter Duchin and his orchestra for her party
- A failed inventor who reportedly possesses a poison powerful enough to spike the water supply and kill everyone in town
- A pianist/singer who knows 6,000 songs by heart and recognizes no speed limit when driving from gig to gig
All of these characters and situations – and more – appear in the novelized, non-fiction book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. The author, a magazine writer in New York City for decades, discovered the magic of airline supersaver fares in the early 1980s which offered travel to U.S. cities for less than the nouvelle cuisine restaurant meals he critiqued. Through cheap travel to a sampling of continental U.S. cities, the author finds himself drawn more and more to Savannah, Georgia with its charms and eccentricities, so much so that he finally ends up living more of the year there than in NYC.
This title happens to be the one our Nebraska Library Commission book club will be discussing at its August session (and we have a book club kit in case your local group would like to read it). From shocking, to laugh-out-loud funny, the book manages to draw in the reader into the lives of the characters. Ultimately, Savannah itself becomes a character. Its history is fascinating. One example is that fact that, through southern charm and good manners, the then-mayor managed to talk the union general Sherman out of burning the city to ground in his march across the south.
The city itself, however, is not all charm and hospitality, with its beautiful squares that form the basis of the “old” Savannah. The city has traditionally stiff-armed any attempts to bring in local economic development and any chain stores. Such entities moved on up or down the road to Augusta or Atlanta. But the lack of economic opportunity, the still-present stratification of society along black and white lines certainly contributed to Savannah being named “Murder Capital of the U.S.” at one point.
Give it a try. I think you will be charmed, shocked and tickled with Mr. Berendt’s loving yet dispassionate treatment of Savannah. It certainly has led me to put the city on my list of must-see places sometime in my life.