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.

June 27, 2007 1:00 AM | | Comments (6)



Bill, your comment -- "As a Southerner born and bred (although I have lived in Europe, have two graduate degrees, etc.)" -- is very offensive to me as a Southerner.

You say it as if having graduate degrees (of which my husband and I both have -- mine art history and his biology) is something that makes you less traditionally Southern.

You make it seem as if you are ashamed to be Southern and want to qualify and justify the statement with "I was born there, but I'm not the hick you must think I am."

I will assume it was a poor choice of words and not discount the rest of your post because of it.

I am proud to be Southern and everyone I associate with in the South is well spoken, thoughtful, educated and even a bit eccentric -- which makes them all the more interesting to me as I now live in the less eccentric Midwest!

Great post, John. I remember loving my visit to Savannah. I think what one should do to "get" the area is to read more of the works of native daughter Flannery O'Connor (who spent formative years there). There's a fine writer who loved her subjects enough to spread her dark humor and grace over them.

I am, yes, Southern by any standard, except maybe those of the Deep South: FFV, DC, DAR, UDC, etc.

"Midnight" was definitely a piece by an outsider fascinated by our "oddness." I know those locally called "come heres" are horrified they are still considered outsiders, even after six years, let alone six months.

A reminder to those that are equally fascinated by Southern art, music, cuisine, etc.: We do welcome you, but please don't attempt to "change" or "improve" us based on little or no knowledge.

If you really want a quick take on the South, I recommend Florence King's "Southern Ladies and Gentlemen." People outside the South think it is a funny book; Southerners recognize it for what it is -- a sociological treatise on the South.

Yes, we have flaws. Yes, we've made mistakes. But don't condescend to us or we'll turn off your a/c, and we'll see how you like the real weather!

I won't presume to speak for Midwesterners etc., but I suspect not a few feel the same way.

Interesting post! I thought that "The Book" was a real hoot. As a Southerner born and bred (although I have lived in Europe, have two graduate degrees, etc.), I just think that the book is another example of the wily Southerners making fun of Yankee gullibility. I mean, come on: I doubt even half of the stuff in the book really happened.
We may be "in the Outback," but we know how to separate those from the North from their money by playing on their beliefs about our quaint customs and lifestyles.

Jennifer -- That is a very good point. In our efforts to demonstrate that there is more to the American Outback in terms of culture than tumble weeds and corn stalks, we need to be sure that we do not alienate those writers -- in this case Alex Ross and John Berendt -- whom we also happen to admire, respect and eagerly read.

In particular, I follow Ross in the New Yorker. I love his style, his turns of phrase, his probing insight, and I'm looking forward to reading this new book, "The Rest Is Noise." And I like Berendt's book about Savannah very much, my variation on his freak-theme notwithstanding. In fact, "The Book" has had an enormous influence on my writing. He is a master of narrative, scene development and characterization.

To answer your question -- which you are right in identifying as a complex issue needing to be revisited on occasion-- "who should tell stories about our communities?" My answer would be anyone who does what all reporters do: represent reality with as much fealty to the truth as we can.

In Ross's case, his article actually contains opposing sensibilities: on one hand, he questions the former pejorative meaning of "regional" but then on the other, he uses "regional" in keeping with its former aim of qualifying orchestras. In other words, the Alabama Symphony is pretty good . . . for a regional orchestra.

Obviously, as Drew McManus points out in his comment to Joe's Monday post, Ross doesn't set out to condescend to regional orchestras. But as Joe notes, even though it may be unconscious to Ross, his article still suggests a gee-golly-there-is-some-fancy-art-making-going-on-out-here-in-the-sticks kind of attitude. That said, I believe Ross strives to represent reality accurately -- perhaps he just needs someone to point this error out to him.

Berendt, however, I don't forgive as much. He was conscious of what he was doing. He set out to find a sensational story (in two senses of the word) and he found it -- and he wrote a fabulous, bestselling book. Problem for me is that even though I love the book, and even though it's wildly entertaining, it's still, in the end, disingenuous.

That said, his book has done this city a lot of good. Tourism is our second biggest industry. Tourists are fueling a resurgence in the arts. Tourists are spreading the word about Savannah's beauty, history and charm. Tourists are often baby boomers on the verge of retirement. They often decide to relocate here, bringing with them cultural expectations, which are almost always higher than those that came before.

Still, Berendt's Savannah isn't the Savannah I know. I am a journalist and I am a writer who believes reality is often not as easy to understand as it we might think. Indeed, one could make the case that Berendt's book is, in a sense, the literary version of blackface. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, white men traveled the South performing for white audiences using language and gestures that audiences then perceived to be an accurate representation of Southern blacks.

Obviously, blackface is tasteless and racist. But it's also incongruent with reality. It was entertaining, but is was also disingenuous. That didn't matter, of course, to white audiences back then. They "knew" what African Americans were like and those guys who smeared pitch on their faces were just like them negras.

Berendt gave his don't-live-in-the-below-the-Mason-Dixon readers exactly what they would expect from a story about a murder, scandal, illicit homosexual love and a cast of characters that could only from a sleepy town in the still-exotic Deep South. He gave them, in a way (and this is the end of this politically incorrect metaphor; I don't detect racism in "The Book"), what minstrel showmen gave their audiences. Entertainment, but disingenuous entertainment all the same.

John: Interesting, provocative post! I, too, thought about this notion of eccentricity when I read the NYT piece that I blogged about on Tuesday, and that is part of what I liked about it -- it captured the weirdness, or whatever you want to call it, without overplaying it. There was no sense of "These are the strangest people ever! AND they're in Wisconsin!" The writer actually seemed a little more surprised to encounter a large-scale organic farming operation in a nearby community (go figure). Perhaps the writer's matter-of-fact-ness had something to do with it being a travel piece, not an arts piece per se (less loaded with expectations or judgments of value). Also, as part of his travel series, the writer is taking suggestions from people in local communities about what to see and do.

At any rate, I think your post leads into a larger issue for all of us to think about: who should tell the stories about our communities? Or, more pointedly, who has a right to? I believe the answer to that should be as broad as possible, even if the results don't always satisfy. What I'm concerned about -- and I'm not saying you're doing this -- is that if we swat away writers from the major-metro publications, we're effectively saying "Don't try to write about us, because you'll just get it wrong." That could lead to a kind of insularity. The challenge in all of this is finding a positive way forward.

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