Peter Pringle's America: Virtual reality down South

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SAVANNAH beckons at this time of year. The antebellum city by the sea spared by General Sherman is at its most beautiful. The pink and purple azaleas are in full bloom. The live oaks are in bud, the dogwoods are in flower and the palms on Victory Drive are sprouting tiny bright green shoots. And this spring has an added attraction: a book revealing the private lives of a handful of Savannah's great Southern characters - aristocratic belles, boozers, weirdos, cads and con men.

Alluringly entitled Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, a New York magazine writer, the book is a delicious read, but by the end I had an uneasy feeling that I had been taken for a ride by this Northern interloper in much the same way that one of the book's engaging characters might have mocked an outsider trying to delve into Savannah society. As it turned out, Berendt's journalistic talents had extended to a new and intriguing level: he had interviewed a dead man. But more of that later.

The book is racing up the best- seller list and being earnestly discussed as the finest recent work of non-fiction to come out of the New South. In Savannah they are reeling at the success of this latter- day carpetbagger, who dipped into their bourbon-soaked jollifications and charmed the gentlemen, ladies and several less-refined folk into giving up their best stories. In New York, the able editors at Random House, the publisher, packaged the tales into a seductive spring bouquet.

The focus of the book is a homosexual antique dealer who lives in an elegant house in one of the prim, flowering squares that make Savannah famous. The dealer, Jim Williams, is best- known in town for his Christmas parties, one for high society and the other for men only. One day Williams shoots and kills his young lover, a redneck gigolo known about town as a 'walking streak of sex'. Williams contends the youth fired at him first. There are four trials and eventually Williams gets off, either because of the incompetence of the prosecutor or through the aid of a voodoo queen, it is not certain which.

In following the murder case, Berendt bumps into a stellar collection of Southern stereotypes. There are the well-bred dames of the Married Woman's Card Club, founded in 1893 by bored wives in search of amusement. Their entertainment starts at 4.15pm sharp with a glass of water, moves to cocktails at five o'oclock, 5.15 and 5.30 and ends on the dot of six. The women gossip wickedly and one favourite target is 'Big Emma' Adler, the largest stockholder in the local bank who kept a padlock on her refrigerator to stop the kitchen staff from helping themselves to its contents.

The cheapness of Savannah high society is a recurring theme. One grande dame wanted a pair of wrought-iron gates for her mansion. The foundry made them to her specification and charged her dollars 1,400. She refused to pay. Unable to sell them anywhere else, the foundry put them on the scrap heap for dollars 190. The dame sent a man over to the foundry to buy them and gained a pair of new gates - made to order - for dollars 190.

Among the platinum blondes, bathed in essence of gardenia who attend all-night parties in flowing gowns and spiked heels, Berendt found one belle who drives her car with her knees while doing her nails and watching soaps on her car television. Another belle, a rare non-drinker, was hauled from her car by a cop for weaving down the road. She was taking her girdle off at the time.

To spice the tales from the city's high life, if that is the right term, Berendt introduces a sassy black transvestite called Chablis who, to the delight of swooning Yankee reviewers, tells the author, 'The South is one big drag show, honey.' When Northerners go South they inevitably find something to laugh at and that is understandable; Southerners treasure humour and to record their gems is an admirable way to spend one's time.

My discomfort about this book is not that Berendt retells well- worn Southern lore, but that for a work of non-fiction there is a disturbing lack of dates, leaving the reader suspicious as to its accuracy. Discomfort turned to irritation when I saw an interview with the author in Savannah Magazine, in which Berendt essentially admits to making up chunks of the dialogue.

In effect, this book is another virtual-reality volume in the genre of Joe McGinniss's biography last year of Ted Kennedy. In a slippery author's note, Berendt admits he has 'taken certain story- telling liberties . . . where the narrative strays from strict non- fiction, my intention has been to remain faithful to the characters and the essential drift of events as they really happened'.

What is he trying to say? Well, Savannah Magazine (not read much in the North, of course) reveals all. Berendt did not arrive in Savannah until after the murder of the antique dealer's lover. He never knew the young gigolo who was shot - yet the book begins by describing how he met the youth. He even quotes him. If that much is made up, what else is fiction?

In pulling his 'literary trick' about Ted Kennedy, McGinniss proclaimed that a writer has a right to make up quotes and thoughts for his subjects providing he informs the reader 'unambiguously' of what he is doing. Berendt's author's note is about as ambiguous as it could be. As far as I am concerned he wrote a historical novel, not history. Or maybe it is a film script. As Savannahians have noted, with more wisdom than Berendt gave them credit for, that is where the real money is, not in books, even best sellers. Look for Midnight in a few years at your nearest cinema.