In a 1997 interview for Savannah Scene Magazine, author John Berendt was asked, "Is the truth stranger than fiction?" His response could possibly be the answer to the question of why his record breaking best seller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, has remained so popular. Berendt answered, "A good story is more compelling if, in fact, it's true. And truth makes a story all that much more appealing."(Savannahgeorgia) This non-fiction novel has been lauded as "the best non-fiction novel since [Truman Capote's] In Cold Blood." (Amazon) It is well known that Berendt first visited Savannah, GA., the setting of Midnight, in 1985 on a random weekend vacation. Berendt had taken similar trips to various cities throughout the South after learning that airfares southern destinations equaled the price of a nouvelle cuisine dinner in his home city of New York(NYT, 3/20/94)). While it would have been easy for anyone who has visited Savannah to predict that Berendt would be immediately captivated with the city, no one could have foreseen the success that would be his after the publishing of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The book has spent over 197 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list, breaking almost every record associated with the list (LDT, 4/8/98). It won the Southern Book Award in 1994, the same year it was published, and was one of three finalists in the general non-fiction category for the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 (Savannahgeorgia). Perhaps the highest distinction that Midnight carries is that it is simply known as "The Book." (LDT, 4/8/98)
An inherent bonus of Berendt's story is its characters. Berendt writes that "The people I met were highly original, full-blown literary characters." The first half of the book is dedicated to the painting of a rich, well textured picture of Savannah and the people that befriend Berendt. Perhaps the most exuberant and colorful person Berendt becomes acquainted with is a drag queen who has legally changed her name to "The Lady Chablis."(Midnight, 99) Chablis jumps into Berendt's life one day as he parks his newly purchased car next to the curb by announcing, "Ooooo, child! You are right on time, honey. I am serious. I cannot tell you. Y-e-e-e-s, child. Yayyiss?yayyiss?yayyiss!" and promptly demands a ride home (Midnight, 97) Characters with smaller appearances in, but no less impact on, Berendt's tale include a slightly off-kilter, government employee who "glues string on the backs of anesthetized flies and then takes them for walks," and has enough illegal poison to kill the entire city if he ever dumped it into the water supply (Kanzler), something he often contemplates. "The Lady of Six Thousand Songs", Emma Kelly is an exceptional piano player and singer who travels all over Georgia performing. Kelly was given her nickname by the musician, Johnny Mercer, a home town hero of Savannah. Joe Odom, an easy going, squatter, perpetual party giver, lawyer by trade becomes a fixture in Berendt's Savannah experience. It is Odom that enlightens Berendt on the three rules of Savannah;
Rule number one: Always stick around for one more drink. That's when things happen. That's when you'll find out everything you want to know.
Rule number two: Never go South of Gaston Street. A true Savannahian is NOG. NOG means ?north of Gaston.' We stay in the old part of town.
Rule number three: Observe the high holidays - Saint Patrick's Day and the day of the Georgia-Florida football game. Savannah has the third-biggest Saint Patrick's Day parade in America?.The game is nothing less than a war between the gentlemen of Georgia and the Florida barbarians. (Midnight, 49-50)
The second half of "The Book" is a recounting of the shooting of a bi-sexual, out of control young man and the scandalous four trails of the accused murderer, who is his sometime lover, Jim Williams. Williams has been described as having "the mien and aura of an Eighties Jay Gatsby." (LDT, 4/8/98) He is the quintessential all American rag to riches story, with eccentric twists that only the city of Savannah would tolerate. A well known antiques dealer that replied, "It's the riche that counts," when asked, "How does it feel to be nouveau riche?" (Midnight, 7) All of these wonderful characters, along with many more, mix and merge to make a cast that is complete entertainment in and of itself. They are all so vividly described and portrayed that the reader has a hard time remembering that they are, indeed, real people, who have lived out the tale that is unfolded within the pages of "The Book."
Without a doubt, Berendt's incredible storytelling ability is a major component of "The Book's" success. Berendt spins out the events of his five year stay in Savannah, GA. with such expertise that it is hard to remember that this is a work of non-fiction. After reading just a few pages of the book, it is obvious that Berendt not only fell in love with the city, but that that love was carried over into the portrayal the city and its people. His writing has been described as "elegant and wickedly funny,"(NYT, 3/20/94) "suppressed poetry and sense of encroaching myth." (LDT, 4/8/98) It has been said that Berendt "frequently veers off and includes overheard conversations, funny vignettes and bits of historical and architectural data ? a method that a lesser observer might have botched but that works wonderfully here." (NYT, 4/20/94) Reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil leaves the reader feeling that they have been given an inside view to world vastly different than their own. The Deep South holds a mystical persona in many a persons mind, and "The Book," not only helps the reader to understand this mysterious place a little better, it dishes the dirt while doing so.
Berendt spent a total of seven years working on the Midnight project. The first five were spent primarily in Savannah, researching and simply living the experiences he would later write about. Berendt says that for the first year all he did was, "walk around with a pad and pencil, interviewing everyone." (Amazon) The last two years were spent in New York, fine tuning the manuscript. Berendt's first agent dismissed the book as being "too local?I don't think I could get a publisher excited enough to take on a book of this kind." (NYT, 12/14/94) Despite this discouraging first response, Berendt went on to get another, more optimistic agent who did, in fact, get a publisher, Random House, interested in the manuscript. Another seemingly stoke of amazing luck was the assignment of Ann Godoff as editor. Godoff would go one to become president and editor in chief of the Random House trade-publishing group, which is one of the most visible and important imprints under the Random House, Inc. umbrella (NYT 4/3/98). That the editor of his book had become the head of his publishing imprint could only further Berendt's exposure and the success of his book.
"The Book" is widely regarded as a well written, entertaining piece of non-fiction that reads like an intriguing blend of travelogue and who-done-it which many think stand as a best seller on its own merits, there are several outside factors that contribute to the staying power of the book. Berendt is known for his wide promotional tours, on which it is said he puts out signed editions as fast as 29 copies per minute (Booknotes, 9/28/97). Random House has sent him on book tours that have been as extensive and whirl-wind like as to encompass 38 cities. The publisher has sponsored other promotions for the book. The woman who bought the 400,000 copy of the book opened it and found a hand written note from Berendt inside. It informed her that she had won a free trip to Savannah, courtesy of Random House. In addition, Berendt frequently led personalized tours of Savannah for reporters in the early days of "The Book's" success (Time, 4/3/95). It was reported in 1995 by the New York Times that "On average, more than five articles about the book appear in the press each week. Spots on the book still appear on national radio and television shows." (NYT, 4/19/95) In addition to the promotion of the book done by Berendt himself, there is an entire city in Georgia that has created an entire cottage industry from "The Book's" success. Tourism is up 46% in Savannah, a city which has always relied on travel dollars for a moderate part of its revenue. There are no less than six companies that offer tours of the city based on sights that appear in Midnight. One small bookstore owner sold enough copies of Midnight to pay cash for a midnight-blue Buick which is now known as the "Midnightmobile." The Lady Chablis performs her drag show to sold out audiences every weekend. She also has released her own book, telling her life tale of beauty pageants, various "Miss Gay" awards, and her rise to fame. The book is entitled "Hiding My Candy." A college located in Savannah offers slide lectures that focus on "The Book." (Savannahgeorgia).
Perhaps the most well known booster of ratings was the 1997 release of the Warner Bros. Adaptation of "The Book". Warner Bros. Bought the movie rights for $300,000. With Clint Eastwood directing, Kevin Spacey and John Cusack starring, the hype before, and during, the shooting of the film was wide spread. Eastwood was coming off his recently acclaimed adaptation of the book, Bridges of Madison County, and was expecting a similar product from Midnight. Berendt, who did not write the screenplay because he wanted "total deniability," regarded the movie as "a $50 million commercial for my book," and thinks "it was very nice of Clint Eastwood to take time from his busy schedule to make it." (Amazon) While the movie was not a box office smash by any means, it drew attention and sparked interest in the story. Berendt attributes the poor showing of the film to the fact that there is no way the entire story could be told in a short time span. "The Book" holds too many intricate characters, complex and overlapping stories, and is astoundingly detailed. In order to convey the true feeling of "The Book," a screen play by Berendt would have to be "at least 25 hours long." (Amazon)
There is not doubt that some part of "The Book's" success must be attributed to the publicity machinery that has become a part of the publishing world today. However, a larger part of the success can be given to simple word of mouth advertising. The on-line book store, Amazon.com, has hundreds of reader reviews of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. They are not all raving, glowing, and wonderfully complimentary, but they are all highly opinionated. The majority of the reviews there, as well as in the general media, are good ones that cannot say enough fantastic things about "The Book." The bad reviews are just as fervent in their roasting of it. Whether a reader likes the book or not, it cannot be denied that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has become something of a phenomenon. It has become, not only a well known best seller that has spent close to two hundred weeks on the charts, but a book that the overwhelming majority of Americans have, at the very least, heard of. "The Book" continues its unprecedented stay on the New York Times Best Seller list, while enjoying respectable showings in the UK, Australia, South Africa, and several other countries (LDT, 4/8/98).
When asked their thoughts on why Midnight has become such a raving success, a few University of Virginia students had a simple answer. They thought the best part of the book was "the dirt. Hands down the gossip that you become a part of wins." Another thought, "the details absolutely place you in Savannah. There is no way you can read this and not have a longing to run and become a part of the romantic picture that the book paints." Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has broken all kinds of records and won numerous accolades. No one reason can be credited for its undeniably huge success. Random House executives have a standing joke that if sales ever slow down, Midnight will come out in paperback here in the U.S. That's slated to happen sometime in the year 2002 (LDT, 4/8/98).