Freaks in the Outback are culture, too
Just as Alex Ross was surprised in a recent New Yorker piece to find good orchestras West of the Hudson River, John Berendt, a former editor of Esquire magazine and author of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," was surprised to learn some years ago that New York hadn't yet cornered the market on (God love 'em) America's freaks, weirdoes and whackjobs.
The book, published in 1994, was a phenomenal hit, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for an incredible four years. It brought Savannah to the forefront of American consciousness, it changed Savannah's tourism industry forever (the city rakes in about $1 billion in tourism dollars annually) and it introduced everyone, thanks also to Clint Eastwood's really awful but no less charming and colorful movie, to Savannah's litany of off-kilter characters.
An inventor who strings a vile of poison around this neck and who could spike at any time the city's water supply; a road-rambling country diva who knows every single song by Savannah tunesmith Johnny Mercer; a ne'er-do-well con artist and attorney who covers his bad-check-writing tracks with oodles of charm; and a black transsexual by the name of The Lady Chablis who's fond of "hiding my candy."
The book is arranged around these and more: a voodoo priestess, a bevy of bedecked black debutantes, the Married Women's Card Club, a gay redneck gigolo. "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," which we refer to around these parts simply as "The Book," has it all, including a mystery: It follows the eight-year trial of Jim Williams, a flamboyant antiques dealer, and Berendt's aristocratic and axiomatic protagonist, charged with killing his as-cranky-as-queer lover.
It's a great book, the stuff of fiction. In fact, a novelistic approach is certainly what Berendt was aiming for. In the tradition of Capote's "In Cold Blood," Berendt, as he confessed after the book's publication, did a tidy job of "rounding the corners" of inconvenient facts, which we can take as fertile ground for heightening the sensational elements of his story, such as the "Greek chorus" of characters, as the book jacket speaks with reverent literary delight.
What I'm getting at is this: As New Yorkers, Berendt, and Ross, express in their writing a gee-whiz attitude toward things they don't expect to find outside New York. I don't believe they meant to do this, but this tone of voice is ultimately patronizing even when its positive (Ross's praising of Midwestern arts groups) and entertaining (Berendt's focusing on a small Southern town's charming though no less marginalized and sad oddballs).
What's worse, though, is that such writers are missing what's really going on in the American Outback. As Joe Nickell notes, the question Ross is missing is what the Indianapolis Symphony is doing for the city of Indianapolis. In his quest to tell a story about Savannah (the subtitle is "A Savannah Story"), Berendt succeeds -- wildly and with wonderfully wry humor and often nail-biting suspense -- in telling his particular view of Savannah, but fails to capture Savannah as it is experienced by the people living here.
Berendt lived here for all of six months.
Let me say that again, with feeling -- six months.
I've lived here for six years. The Savannah I know is unlike the world represented in The Book. I simply don't recognize it. What Berendt did well was tap into the North's long-standing fascination with the South -- its claim to good manners, its gestures of grace and romantic "Gone with the Wind" gentility. As the North became less industrialized, more suburban and less connected, residents of the North -- they're called Yankees here; I'm one of them -- have developed over time a longing for the appearance of simpler times, which are associated with the South and its grand manors, folk customs and cultivation of hospitality.
But zippity do dah, it ain't.
Berendt also taps into an implicit condescension among outsiders that Savannah, and by proxy the South, is not equal in terms of culture. And by culture I mean not just art, literature and the life of the mind; I mean freaks, weirdos and whackjobs. Pointing out that Savannah has characters isn't much of a revelation to those who live here. Eccentrics live here, eccentrics live in New York, eccentrics live pretty much everywhere. The Lady Chablis pales in comparison to Divine (does anyone remember the ending to John Waters' "Pink Flamingos"?).
Berendt was bedazzled by the Lady (and let's face it, who wouldn't be?) because Berendt loved the delicious contrast between Chablis' ribald humor (her memoir is titled "Hiding My Candy," i.e., her penis) and Savannah's genteel grace, which was a contrast made entirely out of Berendt's imagination. He doesn't realize the socioeconomics of political power, race and class in the South, combined with a fiercely protected (sometimes at the point of a gun) sense of individualism, have conspired to create a climate rich in eccentricity.
Eccentrics thrive here in part because they are alienated and made voiceless by a cabal of (mostly white) power brokers who reinforce the status quo. Over the decades, those who didn't fit in or who were actively barred from the American franchise (as all African Americans were for generations), people, I think, tend to go crazy. The societal pressures to maintain a sense of individual decorum in the North don't exist in a South that institutionalized segregation for more than a century. As long as you didn't cross the color (or, let's not forget, class) line, you could be as odd, deranged or sociopathic as you like. Even homosexuals, like Jim Williams and his dead hustler, didn't have to live in the closet as long as the closet was inside, not in public.
That's what Berendt missed. Unfortunately, writers like this are blinded by what they think they already know about the American Outback, which is too bad. There's more out here (good and bad; for better and for worse) than you think.
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