BOOK REVIEW / Swinging both ways through Georgia: 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' - John Berendt: Chatto & Windus, 10.99

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The Independent Online
THE SPACE between fiction and non-fiction grows ever more compressed and problematic. John Berendt's enthralling new book is an exotic cocktail: two hearty measures of travel-book whimsy mixed with a slug of real-life murder, a dollop of old-world affluence and a sprinkling of off-centre sex. It's a portrait of Savannah, Georgia, and also a courtroom drama; it mixes drag queens and voodoo priestesses with high-society bankers and antique dealers; it is both an elegy for a vanished world and a satire on archaic manners. It has become a cult book in America and is doing for Savannah what James Herriot did for the Yorkshire Dales and Peter Mayle for Provence. Yes, John Berendt has a lot to answer for.

It begins as a memoir. Berendt, an editor at Esquire magazine, notices that for the price of dinner in a fancy New York restaurant he could fly round America, so he zips down to Savannah and is captivated by its languid Southern charm. The first half of the book is a series of encounters with the characters who give the place its special exotic fragrance. The central figure is Jim Williams, a rich self-made aesthete who owns the fanciest house in town. Jackie Onassis once stopped by to look at his collection of Faberge (he kept the Lugers and the swastika out of sight), and was so delighted she offered him pounds 2m for the place. Williams's annual Christmas parties are the number one invite for Savannah's high society.

Around him swirls a cast of gaudy caricatures: a glum inventor called Luther who is trying to make goldfish glow in the dark; a property developer who shook hands with Prince Charles, and a reckless street hustler. There's a black magician called Minerva who doesn't just communicate with spirits, she knocks up dinner for them. 'Witches love pork meat,' she confides. 'They loves rice and potatoes. They loves black-eyed peas and cornbread. Lima beans, too, and collard greens and cabbage, all cooked in pork fat. Witches is old folks, most of them. They don't care none for low-cal.'

Most everyone in the book done gone talk like this, child, but no one is more colourful than a black night-club artiste called The Lady Chablis. Berendt runs into her and offers her a lift. What was your name, he asks, before Chablis? Frank, she says. And off they go, talking a blue streak of oestrogen shots and hormone replacement. The Lady Chablis proves she's serious by unbuttoning her immaculate new breasts.

Then, in the second half of the book, a gun goes off. Jim Williams shoots his 21-year-old houseboy and part-time lover. He is tried four times: twice found guilty, mistried once and finally released when his lawyers latch on to some tampered evidence. There are serious questions here to do with gunpowder burns, bloodstains on the carpet, the freshness of bullet holes, angles of attack and so on. But Berendt plays up the outlandish aspects of the case - the ludicrous dog-mad lawyer, the witchy promptings of Minerva, and the great sang-froid of the killer.

He is amazing. In prison he continues to trade antiques, and when his cellmates cut up rough he shouts into the phone - 'Won't someone please put the dogs out in the garden?' His lawyer tells him to look humble and remorseful in court, but he is not sure. 'I don't know if I can manage that. But I am making a sincere effort to look impoverished. I'm wearing the same blue blazer I wore on Friday. It will give the jury the impression I haven't got anything else to wear. What they won't know is that it's a custom-made Dunhill jacket, and that the buttons are 18-carat Georgia gold.'

It is not hard to see why this has sent coachloads of tourists heading for the swampy Georgia coast: it's a sensual freak show, with a backdrop straight out of House and Garden magazine. Barbed remarks float along porches tumbling with gardenias and dogwood blossom and deep Confederate jasmine. It is not so much gone with the wind as hanging in the breeze, and it is all perfectly gorgeous in a fine, dandyish way.

But despite Berendt's extreme grace and cleverness, it is in a way a conventional, not to say stereotypical, image of the South. Savannah, the town that gave its name to the suicidal poet-heroine of Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides, emerges as a shimmering vision of old-world opulence: inbred, scintillating, decadent, rich, broody, violent, lush and perfumed with an exclusive ennui.

Outside the Williams house, Berendt overhears a tour guide talking about the civil war and Jackie Onassis; the homosexual murder pageant is not mentioned. 'The tourists would leave Savannah in a few hours,' Berendt concludes, 'enchanted by the elegance of this romantic garden city but none the wiser about the secrets that lay within the innermost glades of its secluded bower'.

This is one of the very few trite sentences in the book, so it is a shame it comes at the end. After 350 pages of top-notch reportage we expect something sharper than innermost glades and secluded bowers. But that's all she wrote, folks, and the book dissolves in wistful nonchalance and sighs. We glimpse an invisible city, a paradoxical dream of baroque refinements which is also, for a while, the murder capital of America.

It is no accident that The Lady Chablis is the talkative centre-piece, since the book itself swings both ways. 'Though this is a work of non-fiction,' Berendt says, 'I have taken certain storytelling liberties, particularly having to do with the timing of events.' Many readers will worry about this; 'storytelling liberties' are hard to swallow when so much depends on the minutiae of a murder case. If Berendt has fiddled with the evidence, we have no option but to throw his book out of court. In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald used a boy-next-door narrator to make an unreal story seem plausible. Here, Berendt deploys himself as narrator in order to make a real story seem magical.

In aspiring to the best of both worlds, he flirts with the worst. Maybe he didn't take enough liberties. The events might be true, but this hardly qualifies it as non-fiction; by these lights Julius Caesar is non-fiction. But if we read this as a novel it starts feeling like high-sud soap opera: incidents do not turn on character, but on some moonlit magic in the Savannah air. Everything that happens is in some sense a product of the landscape, with its special confederacy of ghosts.

Still, it will tantalise readers en route to the place itself, when they sit in Burger King and wonder why Chablis doesn't come and sweet- talk them over a mint julep. Best of all, the paperback will come out in plenty of time for the Olympic Games in nearby Atlanta. Who knows, perhaps some kind person will give a copy to Sally Gunnell for Christmas.