Simulacrum Savannah: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Article excerpt

Subtitled A Savannah Story, John Berendt's 1994 bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil had an immediate impact on the city he depicted, as did the movie version directed by Oint Eastwood and released in 1997. Eight months after the publication of Midnight, tourism in Savannah was up by 46 percent; convention booking grew 40 percent in 1994 and another 30 percent in 1995; and new businesses opened on Broughton Street, where previously empty storefronts had littered Savannah's main shopping thoroughfare. Guided tours led visitors to spots highlighted in Berendt's Savannah stoiy, especially Mercer House, the home of the flamboyant protagonist Jim Williams and the site where the plot of both the book and the film takes off with the midnight murder of Williams's boy toy. Tourists out on their own got lost among identical squares and indistinguishable mansions and inadvertently gave the reception of the bestseller a postmodern twist that Berendt and Eastwood might appreciate. An internet map of the city with Berendt's crucial locations drawn in-from the Old Bonaventure Cemetery to Hard-hearted Hannah's house that exists in blues lyrics only-adds to the general confusion.

As the title suggests, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil draws on traditional themes and figures familiar to readers of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, William Styron, Walker Percy, and Alice Walker: grotesque characters, gothic settings, North/South dichotomies, southern heroes and belles, racial ambiguities, the importance of place, and more. Yet both book and film versions have a distinctly postmodern flavor. Midnight combines travel narrative, tourist brochure, detective fiction, (auto)biography, and courtroom drama into a tasty gumbo. This mixture of ingredients continues in representations of gender and race, for example with the provocative figure of the Lady Chablis, an African American transvestite intermittently named Frank, who turns into a southern belle with a knack for dresses, strip shows, and generous gentlemen of whatever race and gender. The shooting of other films at Mercer House and Lafayette Square, empty signif iers like Nazi flags hung for decoration or subversion, as well as the mixture of real and reel characters, contributes to postmodern confusions and delights. The southern gothic à la Berendt adds spice to both versions of the Savannah narrative. Rich with writerly and readerly possibilities, Berendt's Savannah becomes a hyperreality, where southernness constitutes a series of interrelated discourses about the South and where comfortable notions of fact and fiction, acting and reality, class, gender, and truth no longer fit, or matter. Midnight as book and film stirs up southern fictions, which the two media address in overlapping but different ways. Unlike Jim Williams, who shifts friends and enemies from the Out to the In box for his Christmas party invitations, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil invites and welcomes all variations of bodies and behaviors, as southern, homosexual, postmodern, and real as John Berendt's simulacrum Savannah.

Williams inhabits a text and a city as southern as John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn (1832). As the owner of Mercer House, run like a model plantation, he embodies the southern gentleman, adept at manners and decorum, and with a collection of vices and Fabergé objects worthy of his position. His casual decadence flourishes at his gentlemen-only Christmas party, catered, like his regular Christmas party, by Lucille Wright, an African American cook he keeps as busy as any leisured nineteenth-century slaveholder would. He enjoys a good neighborly feud, but stays away from cruder activities such as public gambling and car racing, along with sex, his young lover's favorite pastimes. Danny Hansford plays the part of the Southern Hero in Berendt's and Eastwood's scripts, as passionate, violent, anti-intellectual, and self-destructive as Kate Chopin's Armand Aubigny. …