Firstly it not a collection of short stories DOH….
Well my weekly book challenge failed miserably but I did read one book in the week which a first for me in a long while :-). The chosen book was John Berendt’s ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ a strange choice randomly picked up because I liked the cover in a charity shop!.
It is a rattling good read but the whole ‘factional’ element what most interesting. Like Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ Berendt (ex New Yorker editor so no slouch) mixes up fiction and reality and not only did this annoy people at the time as it was presented as ‘non-fiction’ for a Pulitzer prize but it also means that several different ‘modes’ in operation throughout the ‘novel’ or ‘New Journalism’ depending on how you look at it.
Written during mid 1990’s but it has the flavour of the Aids infected late eighties and a lot of the material plays with false and real borders politically and emotionally. It never stated but Berendt himself seems more than interested in the social and political status of both gay men ( the protagonist) and the political ‘solutions’ that white southerners were making with post Civil Rights America. Indeed the analysis of gerrymandering and political corruption does seem to ring true. In that sense it does the job of ‘reportage’ pretty well and reads as a historically accurate tale of its time….maybe.
However the problem is that having been at the New Yorker he also more than aware of the power of good story-telling and he administers many ‘florid’ and deft touches to his canvas……adding ‘Southern Gothic’ texture like Spanish Moss on the trees to his words…
It all dipped in a large amount of treacly descriptive writing….which helped sell the 2.7 million copies no doubt but skewed the threadbare ‘veracity’ of the story he also adds a bit of Dickensian travelogue for good measure…which apparently increased tourism to Savannah. So it is an archly constructed ‘bestseller’ at heart written by someone clever enough to get away with the floridity and containing enough factual detail ( which easily checked online now) to give some creedence to his stories. Where it falls down is the sometimes over embellished characterisation. The Drag Queen ‘Chablis’ exists and is doing well but the dialogue she speaks here reads like an Eddie Murphy comedy skit most of the time…I kept thinking of Trading Places instead of the action. I do not doubt the locations existed but the set pieces are fictional like the parade of dresses out of the nightclub. They just don’t ring true and the ‘straight’ white boyfriend and family again has a ring of point-making about ‘diversity’ than actual truth…at these points the factional problem starts as you lose the suspension of disbelief and start checking facts. If it had been published today it would immediately have been torn apart online….Berendt was lucky he published just before the internet hit home.His next and only so far other book is a ‘straighter’ historical book about an opera house in Venice.
Made into a mediocre film by Clint Eastwood the political point-scoring sometimes wears thin….Nazi flags..really?..more Father Ted than truth again? Who knows obviously there some crazy snakes in Savannah…but were they really as poisonous as this? Whenever something here seems to good to be true it probably is fictional.
It is well worth reading as a snapshot of southern USA life but remember it seen through pink..sorry purple tinted glasses and the Voodoo stuff…..pure Scooby Doo…..now Mr Berendt what did you really get up to whilst living there and why did Oscar Wilde travel all that way…..more questions than answers.
As for faction…hmm jury out…..I shall return to the theme no doubt. Is all journalism a kind of fiction anyway?