Whisky & Culture

City of vice and virtue

Jefferson Chase discovers the contradictions of Savannah, Georgia, in John Berendt's modern classic Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
By Jefferson Chase
The ambiguity starts with the title.Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – the product of a protracted love affair between New York journalist John Berendt and the city of Savannah, Georgia – tiptoes between genres like a curious yet reverent visitor to a cemetery in the middle of the night.It’s a true crime story married to a travelogue crossed with a comic novel – and an intoxicating read to boot.Berendt first visited Savannah on a lark in 1982, and he found himself inexorably drawn to the city, spending extended periods there over the course of the following decade. Part of the attraction, as the first pages of Midnight make clear, is the odd-ball cast of local characters.One of them is a dandyish rare antiques dealer named Jim Williams, who has an idiosyncratic take on the class system of the Old South: “What I enjoy most,” he said, “is living like an aristocrat without the burden of having to be one. Blue bloods are so inbred and weak.All those generations of importance and grandeur to live up to. No wonder they lack ambition. I don’t envy them. It’s only the trappings of aristocracy that I find worthwhile – the fine furniture, the paintings, the silver – the very things they have to sell when the money runs out. And it always does. Then all they’re left with is their lovely manners.” It’s Williams himself, though, who is trapped – in a murder investigation after he shoots to death a homosexual lover.The suspense here is whether the vaguely sinister, inscrutable Williams killed in self-defence or in cold blood. But the real star of the book is neither the rakish expert in family heirlooms nor any of the other more-or-less appealing nut cases that grace its pages.Instead it’s Savannah itself, an atavistic island of debauchery in fitness-studio-era America, that commands the spotlight.That, as one elderly resident informs Berendt, has to do with the city’s fondness for booze: “Savannah’s always been wet,” she said, “even when the rest of Georgia was dry. During Prohibition, filling stations on Abercorn Street sold whiskey out of gas pumps. Oh you could always get a drink in Savannah... I remember when I was a child, Billy Sunday brought his holy-revival crusade to town... everybody went to hear him. There was great excitement! Mr.Sunday got up and declared at the top of his voice that Savannah was the wickedest city in the world! Well, of course, we all thought that was perfectly marvellous!” It’s not hard to understand why Savannah would have experienced a tourist boom, after Midnight became a massive bestseller in 1994.Nor, to get back to the book itself, is it surprising that the city delights in the series of high-profile trials, in which Williams, despite money and influence, somehow fails to keep himself out of jail.Reinforcements are called up – in the form of a spiritualist charged with breaking the curse put upon the defendant by the restless ghost of the deceased.So it is that Berendt comes to witness a graveside ceremony involving a small hole dug in the soil, a magic root and a half-pint of Wild Turkey.She poured a few drops into the hole, then put the bottle to her lips and drank the rest. “You can drink all you want to when you’re at the grave of a person who loved to drink,” she said. “You’ll never get drunk, ‘cause the dead will take the fumes away from you. By the time you pull the top off the bottle, they done beat you to it... Mr.Jim told me the boy loved Wild Turkey, so I give him a little drink to get him in a better mood.Me, I like to dip snuff.” New Orleans, it seems, isn’t the only place in America where voodoo rules.Did stuff like this really happen? While Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil claims to be non-fictional, it’s up to readers to decide how much of it they actually believe. But whatever one concludes about the book’s truth content, it’s fun to take a literary stroll through a town where virtue and vice coincide – and the living and the dead get together for drinks.