Savannah on my mind

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
By John Berendt
400 pp. Vintage. $17.
If not Georgia as a whole, I’d had Savannah on my mind for quite some time. So, passing by a bookshop in New Orleans’ French Quarter in mid-January of last year, I ducked inside.

Ok, truth is I would have gone inside anyway, I’m powerless to resist the lure of an unfamiliar bookshop, but once inside the owner was so persistent in his “Can I help you find anything particular?” that I felt obligated to name a title, any title, and the first one that came to mind was “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” I’d never read it, but my mind was still somewhat on Savannah, which I had been researching for a possible weekend trip, before I opted for New Orleans instead, deciding it would make for a better January destination.

Accommodation in NOLA for January appeared far cheaper than the rest of the year, while everything I read about Savannah suggested mid-to-late Spring was the best time to visit.

The bookshop owner was comically disheveled, his shop seemingly as disorganized as he was. Books were stacked twice as high as their boxes which were themselves squeezed between narrow shelves already overflowing with titles. Trying to step over and around them while browsing could have qualified as some kind of Olympic sport.

Based on his appearance and his manically scurrying this way and that — taking a book from that box and putting it on this shelf, a book from this box over to that shelf — the man all but cried out for intervention of a Marie Kondo kind. A prime candidate for some minimalist advocate’s attention.

“Can I help you find anything particular?” He said for the umpteenth time, out of sight behind some shelf around the corner.

This was America. “Just looking” was supposed to fend off these kinds of queries here, but he seemed to want something to do, he seemed to need a purpose to momentarily distract from the chaos around him.

I named the book, he named the author — presumably to try and recall which of these shelves held the “B”s — and appeared from behind some shelves.

“Savannah?” he said dipping into a box.

It sounded like a question.

“Yes, I’ve been wanting to go there.”

He nodded, whether out of satisfaction with my answer or because he now brandished the book in his hand, I wasn’t sure.

It was a hardcover copy, the paper looked a bit mildewed, and there was someone’s name scrawled in the front.

Ugh. Name or otherwise, I hated when people wrote in books.

“You wouldn’t happen to have another copy, would you?”

He’d already started walking away by this point, but now turned back to me, a surprised expression on his face.

“No,” he said, then, appearing to think this may have come off a bit curt, added, “I’m afraid not.”

I looked at the overloaded boxes strewn all around me. How could he really know?

He looked at me, his worried eyes like that of the kid at the school lunchroom, scared he’d be asked to sit somewhere else.

“Alright,” I said, looking as I did so at the price inside the front cover.

10.

10 DOLLARS?

That was more than I’d typically spend on a book in this condition, but I bought it anyway, along with the other books I’d picked up while browsing.

He was happy, you could see that, when he placed “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” in the bag.

“Enjoy Savannah,” he said, handing it to me. As if we were there now.

The ways in which John Berendt’s 1994 book have come to define Savannah are fascinating. To the man in the bookshop, the book and the town were impossible to separate, and he wasn’t the only one who thought so.

Last May I did make it to Savannah, because Savannah is best in the spring, and nearly everyone I heard speak more than three lines mentioned the book.

“The book.”

Not “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” but “the book.” The woman at Bonaventure Cemetery, the waiter at the Crystal Beer Parlor, even the guy who rang us up at the “honey and everything honey-related” shop called the Savannah Bee Company. It was “the book” to each and every one of them.

So maybe Savannah and this book really are impossible to separate, like “Middle Earth” and “The Lord of the Rings.” I think that’s what makes this book work so well. It isn’t about a murder, not really, but about Savannah. And how many other books do you know of that are about, or even set in, Savannah?

You might even argue that, at least for tourism purposes, John Berendt made Savannah.

I haven’t read his follow-up, The City of Falling Angels, but I know it never reached the level of fame that “Midnight” did. Maybe that’s because it isn’t as good, but maybe it’s also because it’s set in Venice. The problem with setting anything in Venice is that you can’t MAKE Venice, you can’t own it and have your name spoken alongside it, not when every other book is set in Venice and at least one of them, Death in Venice, is already THE BOOK people associate with Venice.

But Savannah … who really had heard much about Savannah before Berendt’s book came along? I’m not old enough to remember, but I’m pretty certain it wasn’t a household name.

Yes, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” is really good. Like, really good. A masterpiece, even. But that wouldn’t have been possible without Savannah. John Berendt and Savannah were clearly meant to come together, like lovers in a classic Hollywood film, and I’m not sure they’d ever really have been happy (or famous) with anyone else.

P.S. Speaking of films, I watched Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation the day after finishing this. I never really like watching the film after reading the book, it always leaves me feeling empty, but Eastwood’s film — despite the fine pedigree — just felt so flat. But maybe that’s because I had only just finished reading the book. Either way, I can still count the number of truly worthy film adaptations on one hand.

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