An otherwise nondescript salesman named Jack wears a “carefully applied arc of purple eye shadow that blazed like a lurid sunset” –but only on his left eyelid. This is because his boss forbade him from wearing any makeup to work. To avoid getting fired for misconduct, Jack has spent years looking at his boss only over his right shoulder so that the boss can only see his right eye. In order to succeed in this mission he always walks “sideways around the store, like a damned crab, twistin’ this way and that” (58).
Serena Dawes, an aging upper-class beauty whose hair is dyed a flaming red, decided to spend the last half of her life holding court in bed, “drinking martinis and pink ladies, and playing with her white toy poodle, Lulu” (70). She “drawled and cussed and carried on” with visitors and servants while lounging in bed, dressed in one of her many peignoirs. When she has a particularly strong point to make, she throws objects across the room—sometimes even Lulu the poodle (71).
Serena’s shy lover Luther has his good qualities, but he is possessed by inner demons and everyone worries that he will dump his lethal poison into the city’s water supply, killing the entire population. One of Luther’s hobbies is to anesthetize house flies and glue lengths of thread to their backs. Some days, he walks his flies through downtown Savannah, holding a dozen different colored threads in his hand.
These are a sample of some of the colorful characters John Berendt describes in his book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Set in Savannah, Georgia, this book is a nonfiction account of the legal battles of Jim Williams, a successful antique dealer and restorer of old houses. Jim Williams definitely killed his young lover and employee Danny Hansford. He admitted to doing so. The legal question was whether the killing was self-defense or murder.
Berendt’s account of the events leading up to the shooting and the four (yes four) trials Williams endured are riveting. What fascinates me most about this book, though, are the other characters Berendt profiles—and there are many. This is as much a book about the weird denizens of Savannah, Georgia as it is about how and why Williams killed his boy toy.
Some of the main characters readers get to know include Joe Odom, the cheerful lawyer/crook that is such a a wonderful host, piano player and all around likable guy that nobody wants to send him to jail. We also get to know Minerva, a voodoo priestess who helps Jim Williams with her dark arts. And we meet one of the most unforgettable characters of all: the Lady Chablis, an African-American transvestite “show girl” with a penchant for mischief.
With such a remarkable cast of supporting characters, I sometimes forgot that the main thread of the book was about Jim Williams’s trial for murder. His story paled in comparison to the characterization of the rest of Savannah. And this book does seem to be about the city of Savannah as a character, a weird character who likes to drink a lot and act outrageously.
For more details on Midnight’s cast of characters and where they lived, check out this website which maps out all of the main locations and people of the book. http://mayakashi.net/Photo/Journal/Journal3/Savannah/frameset.html
Berendt points out that Savannah encourages eccentricity: “For me, Savannah’s resistance to change was its saving grace. The city looked inward, sealed off from the noises and distractions of the world at large. It grew inward, too, and in such a way that its people flourished like hothouse plants tended by an indulgent gardener. The ordinary became extraordinary. Eccentrics thrived. Every nuance and quirk of personality achieved greater brilliance in that lush enclosure than would have been possible anywhere else in the world” (368).
Some of these Savannah eccentrics seem harmless; others are downright dangerous. As a group, though, they seem to be more colorful and to live life with more zest than do the denizens of my beloved Midwest.
We Midwesterners are decent, hard-working folk. Contrary to national stereotypes, we are actually highly educated and literate in comparison to the rest of the country. We do good things. But we don’t cultivate eccentricity. Sure, we have our share of nut jobs, but we expect our nut jobs to keep their nuttiness to themselves. Mostly, we expect people to fit in. These are fine qualities, I suppose, but they can make us all a bit colorless.
Reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil makes me wonder how I would have turned out if I’d been born and raised in Savannah. I think it’s time to find out. I shall henceforth cultivate eccentricity. I am going to move my bed to my office at work. I will greet my students during office hours wearing nothing but a purple peignoir and my 13 cats. I’ll be smoking cigars and drinking champagne simultaneously. After I get fired for this behavior, I will perform voodoo on the people who fired me, causing them mysterious, wrenching pains in body parts they didn’t know they had.
And I’ll wear purple eye shadow on only my right eyelid.
I’ll let you know how it turns out.
Where are you from? What sort of behavior is encouraged in your neck of the woods?