Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

One of the classics of travel journalism, John Berendt takes us deep into the life of an isolated Georgian town, an island in time.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a portrait of Savannah, an isolated town in Georgia where John Berendt, a journalist from New York found himself by chance and was quickly enchanted by the cast of eccentric characters living there. With a strong architectural restoration movement and a love of old southern values, Savannah quickly struck Berendt as an island stuck in time and a delightful counterpoint to an accelerating modern America.

Berendt acknowledges in a foreword that many took his book to be a novel rather than a piece of travel journalism, perhaps because a natural story evolves – a murder – and the protagonists of the town all seem a little larger than life. He observes that while some writers have complained that it’s rare to meet people in life who would hold the reader’s interest, in Savannah’s case:

It was my good fortune that the people I met and wrote about were highly original, fully-blown literary characters who were absolutely compelling without any help from me.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is that rarity of travel journalism – a work of dedication. Berendt didn’t pull the usual trick of spending 2 or 3 drunk weekends in Savannah before recording as gospel the idle gossip of the maid. He rented a house and spent considerable time over several years to get to know the social and cultural scene of this eccentric Georgian town. He was evidently charmed by the place and consequently the reader, too, falls under the spell of the cocktail parties,

It’s the eccentrics of course who capture the reader’s heart; the sullen, disturbed inventor who treasures a bottle of poison powerful enough to kill the entire town; a rich bachelor who likes to disrupt the invasive film productions made outside his house by draping a Nazi banner in view of the camera; the transexual drag queen who terrifies the sensibilities of cultured society and the freeloading lawyer who holds guided tours of historic houses that he himself is squatting at the time.

It’s with the murder trial that the meaning of the title Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Becomes apparent as the rich defendant puts less faith in his lawyers than in a backwoods voodoo witch who charges him $25 a day to curse the opposing DA and hostile witnesses. She stands in the courtroom, chewing voodoo roots and giving the targets of her black magic the evil eye.

Later, she takes Berendt with her to the graveyard at midnight. Any time before the stroke of midnight she can work positive magic but after the clock strikes 12 there’s only the potential for cursing. Much to the annoyance of the defendant she spends most of her time hustling her dead husband for the winning lottery number.

John Berendt is a wonderful storyteller and evidently a very likeable guy as he’s embraced by this conservative community into its most exclusive circles. Or perhaps it’s just the thrill of being written about that encourages the inhabitants of Savannah to confide in this Yankee and make possible his book. At any rate Berendt’s openness and in meeting all elements of society allow him to paint a portrait of this sultry town of hothouse flower eccentrics that make Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil required reading for any travel writer.