Blurring the definitions in a true novel

January 31, 1994|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,Sun Staff Writer

"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" captures the essence of what makes truth stranger than fiction, and it is magical.

John Berendt's true story about the people of Savannah, Ga., is a pleasure to read from beginning to end. It is alternately &L laugh-out-loud funny, astonishing, dark and eerily poetic.

The graceful Southern city gently seethes in Mr. Berendt's book, court of ruthless snobbery and charming guile, seedy and posh all at once. We see Savannah and its cast of characters through his discerning eye for detail and his uncanny instinct for the nuggets that add up to a great story.

As the outsider staying in Savannah, a quiet observer -- he is a columnist for Esquire who lives in New York -- Mr. Berendt is an easy confidante to his intriguing new acquaintances. Throw in a little voodoo, money and murder, and you've got yourself an irresistible book.

We first meet Jim Williams, an antiques dealer with pockets full of new money, who played a key role in the restoration of Savannah's historic district -- and a key role in the shooting that is the axis around which Mr. Berendt's story spins.

Mr. Berendt writes: "He was tall, about fifty, with darkly handsome, almost sinister features: a neatly trimmed mustache, hair turning silver at the temples, and eyes so black they were like the tinted windows of a sleek limousine -- he could see out, but you couldn't see in." He lived alone in a grand mansion and annually gave the city's most exclusive and elegant Christmas party.

On one of these festive occasions, members of Savannah's elite compared weaponry in one of the exchanges that make this book so delightful:

Serena batted her eyes at Colonel Atwood. "Are you carrying any your Kraut daggers tonight, Colonel?"

"Nope, only my trusty sidearm," said Atwood. He took a smalrevolver out of his pocket and held it in his palm. "Know what this is?"

"Of course I do," said Serena. "My late husband blew his brains out with one of those."

"Oh!" said a bone-thin woman standing next to Serena. "So did mine! I'll never forget it." . . .

Colonel Atwood's revolver caught the attention of Dr. Tod Fulton. "Twenty-two Magnum, huh? Not bad. I carry this little number." Dr. Fulton reached into his pocket and took out a black leather wallet. The wallet had a hole through the middle. The crescent curve of a trigger could be seen along one edge of the hole. "It's a twenty-two Derringer in disguise," he said. "If a mugger holds me up and demands my money, all I have to do is pull out this wallet and . . . payday!"

Then there was Luther, rumored to have a bottle of arsenic so powerful that it would kill everyone in town if he dumped it in the water supply.

"Sometimes, to relieve the boredom, Luther anesthetized ordinary house flies and glued lengths of thread to their backs. When the flies awoke, they flew around trailing the threads behind them. 'It makes them easier to catch,' he said. . . . Some people walked dogs; Luther walked flies."

Perhaps most outrageous is Chablis, a black drag queen with a flair for drama that discomfits even our intrepid author. But in the drama department, she has some competition from Minerva, the voodoo woman who works in the "garden" -- the cemetery -- at midnight. She instructs:

"Dead time lasts for one hour -- from half an hour before midnight to half an hour after midnight. The half hour before midnight is for doin' good. The half hour after midnight is for doin' evil."

Mr. Berendt must have been writing his book before midnight, because this is good stuff. For the armchair traveler or the armchair anthropologist, his story treads the lines that divide cemeteries and gardens, black and white, rich and poor, and -- in the case of Chablis -- even male and female.

"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" is a riveting novel that happens to be true.

Ms. Kridler is an editor on the Features copy desk of The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story"

Author: John Berendt

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 392 pages, $23

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