Welcome back to Let’s Read: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. If you’re still with me, that’s awesome. Glad to have you back! If you’re new, you can catch up by checking out the links below:
Let’s Read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: Part 1
So, let’s get down to business. I’m still impressed by the richness of the prose, but the slow pace remains. I’m close to a quarter of the way through the book, and I can still honestly say that nothing has happened.
Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so, at least not so far. I knew I was in for a slow burn based on the first few pages alone, and I like an atmospheric work that slides along slowly and gives me time to soak it all in. That doesn’t mean a slow burn is right for every story, but so far Midnight doesn’t drag.
It does, however, linger in strange places. That’s what I want to talk about today: the payoff. This week, I met another small gallery of strange Savannah personalities. I’m enjoying the strange characters, but sometimes the knowledge that this is a non-fiction book can pull me away from the story. I’m not sure just how fictionalized this supposedly true story is, but the characters sometimes remind of of the cast of a semi-realistic TV show. I’ve watched plenty of shows where the characters feel almost real. Maybe I could believe that the individual people exist, but they’re just a little too quirky and out there for me to believe that they all exist in the same place at the same time.
Sitcoms often feel this way, not that I’m comparing Midnight to a sitcom. But the eccentric nature of the characters occasionally gives me that same feeling. Such a collection of bizarre and overwrought characters all crossing paths with the same narrator doesn’t feel impossible, but it sticks out. I grew up in a small town filled with strange people, so I know it’s possible, but it’s certainly something that readers will notice.
But let’s get back to the payoff. This week, I met a man who keeps a bottle of deadly poison in his refrigerator, a woman who owns a piano bar and employs a bank robber, and more of the fussy upper crust of Savannah. I know I just complained that some of these people seem larger than life, I can definitely tell you this: they radiate personality. Once again, the prose is smooth and silk, and the author’s deadeye narrative skills make you feel like you know them all personally.
The narration lingers. We spend multiple pages learning about the backstory, appearance, and habits of Luther Driggers when the main character encounters him in a drug store. We learn the life story of the Lady of Six Thousand Songs before she actually appears in the story. Like the stereotypical southern gossiper, the narrator lays it all out. At first, I found it a bit wearying. Why did I need to know everything about Luther the moment the narrator noticed him in the store? Isn’t that something we writers are told not to do when introducing new characters?
It works for two reasons. First, there is a holistic honesty to the tone and purpose of these sections. While lengthy, they are focused. It feels like a conversation. Everyone (especially southerners) has met someone who will point to someone across the room and give you their life story. More importantly, it feels like Berendt is trying to fill you in on must-know details before dipping into the real story. That’s something we do when we talk to each other, and Midnight often feels less like a non-fiction book and more like a series of stories that a friend would tell you while you took a long walk or relaxed on the porch.
Secondly, there is the payoff. That’s what I’ve been building up to in this long-winded analysis. Each of these new character gets their own chapter, and once you break through the exposition, the story begins. The narrator talks of his encounters with these people, and at the end, you will find a satisfying and cathartic climax that is enriched by the exposition. It turns out that all those details matter, and without them, that climax wouldn’t be the same. I won’t spoil any of them, but they would make for satisfying shorts on their own.
Berendt delivers these long character analyses at the start of his chapters because that’s how a southern gentleman would introduce you to someone. It fits the style of the book as a whole, and the skill in his descriptions makes you feel like the characters are standing right in front of you. When I’m feeling cynical, it’s easy to think Berendt is exaggerating, but he also makes it all feel possible. The exposition serves as a potent introduction to the characters, and it makes those payoffs all the sweeter.
Are you reading along? What do you think?