Welcome to the first part of my Let’s Read of an iconic work of southern literature: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt. Pitched sometimes as a mystery and other times as a work of southern gothic fiction, this novel is actually a work of nonfiction, as discussed here in my introduction post. If you haven’t heard this introduction, I suggest you check it out before reading further.
Before I begin, I’d like to clarify a couple of things: this will not be a non-spoiler review nor will it be an in-depth analysis. I’m giving myself room to discuss plot elements with specificity, but I don’t plan on telling the whole story or picking apart every aspect. I’m sure plenty of much more accomplished critics have done a much better job analyzing this book than I will, but I’m looking forward to discussing it as I experience it for the first time. I’ll try to keep the spoilers reasonable and my thoughts candid, and I encourage you to read along with me. Think of it more like a book club!
With that said, let’s move on to the first three chapters.
Midnight is based on real events that occurred in Savannah, Georgia in the 1980s. The book is considered non-fiction and is written in first person, though it’s unclear whether or how much the events are fictionalized. So far, the story has focused primarily on how the speaker came to Savannah, the character and atmosphere of the city itself, and the people that Berendt met while living there. It feels much like a richly-written memoir, though had I not known it to be a work of nonfiction, I might think it were a detailed and well-researched work of fiction.
The first thing that sticks out to me about Midnight is its slow pace and depth of detail. I’m not sure that I’ve read anything that crawls along at such a gentle pace, yet seems so good-natured about it. The author describes everything closely, from furniture, to clothing, and even wallpaper. He also lingers on lengthy conversations, often filled with banter and seemingly irrelevant details. It feels much like real dialog – the types of things we often leave out of constructed conversations because they ultimately don’t matter to the story.
In fact, there isn’t much of a story so far. I’m three chapters in and see mostly a cast of characters, from the wealthy and long-winded Mr. Mercer and his historic home to the eccentric and Joe Odom, who seems less like a real person and more like someone I’d hear acquaintances telling stories about.
Most importantly, it feels like the south I know. It’s a place of outward friendliness, stubborn customers, magnolia trees, and sin. I expect that soon, Berendt will show us the evil side of the south, too. Beneath the sultry description and the slowly-simmering set pieces, I detect a bit of darkness.
This book is the poster child of the slow burn. If you enjoy that sort of thing, I advise you to check it out. The prose is beautiful. That said, if you prefer a story that gets to the point, this is not it. I feel that once the plot reveals itself, all this meticulous set-up will have a cathartic payoff.