Intriguing Portrayal of a Southern City

Article excerpt

Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil By John Berendt 388 pages, Random House, $23

AUTHOR John Berendt's first book offers a keenly observed and engaging portrait of Savannah, Ga. Though the work reads like a novel, it is in fact supposed to be nonfiction - part travel guide and part suspense report about an incident that shook the city. Readers looking for civic boosterism or flattering portraits of Savannah's movers and shakers will find neither. Berendt, a columnist for Esquire, apparently wants the reader to take seriously the warning sounded in the first chapter by Savannahian Jim Williams, the center of the book. He tells the author not to be taken in by the city's "moonlight and magnolia." The advice foreshadows many of the incidents, both funny and disturbing, that unfold as Berendt looks behind the facades of some of the city's grandest mansions.

The main focus of "Garden of Good and Evil" is a fatal shooting involving Williams. But the homicide isn't mentioned until the middle of the book. What holds the reader's attention up to that point is Berendt's deft portraits of Savannah and Williams. An antiques dealer, he is among leaders of the movement to restore the city's historic district. He makes a fortune renovating and selling homes.

He eventually buys and restores for himself the Mercer House, making it one of the few great mansions still in private hands in Savannah. The property, which covers a city block, gets a six-page spread in Architectural Digest. By the time restoration is completed, Williams, the son of a barber and a secretary, has risen to the top of Savannah society. He marks the event with a Christmas party that dazzles old Savannah and becomes a permanent part of the city's social calendar - until that homicide. The the 21-year-old victim, described as Williams' homosexual lover, was killed in the mansion. Before the book ends, Williams will have been tried four times for murder. …