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A scandal grows in Savannah

As the last entry on my second-to-last reading list (and don't worry, I have plenty of unlisted reading that I'm completing), this book holds the distinction of being the only book on that list with any ... well, distinction.

On something resembling a whim, John Berendt decides to go down to Savannah, Georgia, a small and thriving city in the deep South, and live there for six months out of the year.  He encounters some pretty wild and eccentric people, like Chablis (a drag queen with a sparkling personality), Joe Odom (a jovial and charismatic swindler who considers himself above the law), Emma Kelly (a lovable singer who knows at least 6,000 songs by heart), and Luther Diggers (a depressed man who talks matter-of-factly about poisoning the whole town - and has the actual poison in his house).  Just as Berendt is getting used to Savannah and its odd denizens, shocking news comes forth that Jim Williams - a friendly and wealthy antiques dealer - has killed his odd-job man, an extremely frustrated and violent young man named Danny Hunsford.  Over the course of a decade, a vicious and dramatic trial takes place as the wet-behind-the-ears D.A. tries to get Williams (who says he shot in self-defense) behind bars.  Berendt studiously records the events right up to the bittersweet end. 
Even though this is nonfiction, it reads very much like a novel - sort of like a slow-paced, funnier version of The Great Gatsby.  Williams certainly cuts a tragic figure as a man with a love of history and a wicked sense of humor, but who is made an example of by a judgmental society and an overzealous prosecutor.  Many of these characters leave a lasting impression on the reader, which is part of what makes Midnight such a rewarding reading experience.  Berendt will often, if not always, leave the readerr to come to their own conclusions about these people and the events that unfold (with a few exceptions, he assigns himself the role of reporter/silent witness).  It's no wonder that Berendt is so attracted to these characters: they love to tell stories just as much as he does. (Get ready for a lot of stories about Johnny Mercer and Uga, the mascot of the University of Georgia.)
Beyond being a thrilling and lively story, Midnight will also invite discussion of race relations, class, and sexual orientation.  As entertaining as these characters are, their views on any one of these topics are as closed-minded as they are unapologetic.  A prominent do-gooder who is socially conscious is hateful toward Williams, going so far as to throw support behind the prosecutor-turned-D.A.  Although the population is half white and half black, the two races move in largely separate circles.  Chablis, a strong woman who puts on a tough act, is still upset that Berendt doesn't invite her to a black cotillian ball.  I don't mention these things to condemn anybody, but to point out that this tension adds a shade of gray to the story - and it's part of what makes it irresistable.  Berendt muses that Savannah is a city that is only interested in its own affairs, and this includes holding onto its old-world roots.  If there is a lesson to be learned from Savannah, I think it comes from Minerva, the resident voodoo witch.  While working her magic on Danny's spirit, she cautions Williams to forgive and forget - to let go of anger and grudges.  We must take the good with the bad and remember that everybody is made of both.
Rating: 5 purple-tinted glasses out of 5.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 2nd, 2011 04:28 am (UTC)
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(Deleted comment)
Nov. 4th, 2011 08:25 pm (UTC)
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