There’s something unique about the South. My mom and her ancestors grew up in the shadow of Lookout Mountain, where Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama intersect, where one of the bloodiest campaigns of the Civil War was fought.
I remember feeling that difference even as a boy—there was just some indescribable difference between our suburban home in Florida and my grandparents’ small town just outside Chattanooga. The iced tea was sweeter, the lightening bugs more plentiful, and the cicadas louder.
It wasn’t just that, though. There was a difference in the people. My grandfather and the butcher would talk for an hour while the butcher cut a customer’s order. People always said “hey” when you passed, whether or not you knew them. For us kids, of course, it was “yes, ma’am” and “no, sir.” And no matter what, we never completely fit in. We were “George and Frances’s family from Florida.” That was our protection—everyone was gracious and kind beyond reason—but we didn’t fit in.
“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” is a mostly true account of a scandalous murder in Savannah, Georgia. The Savannah in this book reminds me slightly of Stephen King’s “Under the Dome.” No, the people weren’t trapped and being suffocated, but most Savannahians had no desire to go anywhere else. One of the wealthiest women in the South lived in Savannah. It took her till she was middle-aged even to deign visiting Charleston, and there was no question she’d never be so base as to go to Europe.
The alleged murderer is named Jim Williams. His story goes that a young man who worked for him refinishing antiques came into his house, destroyed furniture, and then aimed a World War 2 Luger at Williams. The kid’s gun jammed, then Williams shot him three times.
There were multiple trials, until finally Williams was acquitted, and returned to polite Savannah society.
The murder and trial are the framework upon which author John Berendt creates his truest, most interesting character: Savannah, and he has captured perfectly the feeling of this odd Georgia gem (I’ve been there). We meet eccentrics and hard-working people in equal amounts. Well, maybe it’s skewed a bit toward the eccentric side. Eccentrics are more interesting, but reading this book, I get the impression Savannah might truly be under its own dome.
We meet a former lawyer who runs lounges out of other people’s houses while their away. He’s one of the happiest people in town, living with “future-wife-number-four.” There’s The Lady Chablis, a drag queen with a fearless, often discomfiting nature. Minerva is my favorite character. She’s a voodoo queen, a witch, or a charlatan—maybe a combination of all three. She goes into the cemetery, digging up dirt—only at a certain side of midnight—arguing with her former voodoo priest/husband-unit as she plants shiny new dimes on his grave. She puts Jim through his paces with rituals. She’s always entertaining.
One character supposedly has a poison so powerful that if he poured it into the city’s water supply, it would kill everyone. He also orders the same breakfast every day at the drugstore’s lunch counter, then stares at it. Sometimes, he’ll eat a bite or two. Mostly, he’ll just pay and leave.
Jim Williams and his murder trial are, again, the book’s core. In this rich and wonderful book–which moves as slowly and deliberately as the Savannah River–who’s the most intriguing character of all?
Savannah, take a bow.