8 June 2011
I remember enjoying this when it was first published in the mid-1990s, but all I remember from that time is the Spanish Moss in the sleepy old town of Savannah. Did I even remember that it’s non-fiction? I’m not sure I did.
Savannah, in Berendt’s version, is full of eccentrics. I read John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces a year or two back – definitely not non-fiction – and this constantly reminds me of it. Like that novel, one of the purposes of this piece of travel writing, if that’s what it is, appears to be to reflect back to American readers the strangeness of their own country: American travel writers don’t need to go very far for maximum-strength weirdness. So far, it’s a catalogue of eccentric behaviour – but it isn’t only that, because Berendt is too good a writer. About a third of the way through, this is already about how a city can be mythologised – and, once the process has started, how it mythologises itself.
All these elements are in the first chapter, not that we realise this to begin with. Berendt is the observer, not invisible – fairly soon he’s the Yankee writer whose book everybody wants to be in – but a bystander. And he decides to start with Jim Williams, not because he’s the first person he meets – not by a very long way – but because he’s an outsider, reflecting Savannah back to itself. He’s a self-made man who has been able to afford to help restore the old quarter of the city, with its elegant squares. Mercer House – the tour-guides describe, wrongly, how Johnny Mercer once lived there – is the jewel, his jewel. His conversation is bitchy, gossipy and full of casual name-dropping. No, Jackie Onassis didn’t want to buy the house for $2million, she was just passing by and wanted to look at the Faberge box he’d just acquired for $70,000. That’s the other thing: money and shedloads of stuff.
Jim Williams is disapproved of by the old Savannah families, or so he alleges. They don’t like his new money – but, he drawls, never mind the nouveau, it’s the riche he cares about. In a city that is proud of its parties, his Christmas event is the one everyone wants to be at. But his ‘out’ pile – or whatever he calls the list of people who have annoyed him and won’t be invited this year – is an inch thick. Berendt does with Williams what he does with the whole city: hints at his disapproval while basking in the reflected glory. When Williams starts to call him ‘sport’, the similarity to Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby becomes undeniable. He’s holding the Faberge box as Williams tells the Jackie Onassis story, surrounded by European antiques and art. He tells us about the Nazi memorabilia, the stupefyingly self-satisfied tone of everything he says, the loutish young male employee who mysteriously has the run of the place.
Williams is a ‘bachelor’ and asks Berendt if he’d like to attend a private men-only party he holds on the night after the more public one. Berendt seems to want to wrong-foot us. While there might be a hint of a dark underside to Williams, if we’re complacent enough to think that it will be ok to disapprove of his sexuality, it’s definitely going to get far too complicated for easy attitudes like that. Danny, the fit-looking young man, is fiercely heterosexual – and six or seven chapters later, we still don’t understand the connection between him and Williams. And Berendt’s own sexuality is not made clear, although – what? – something in the slightly camp tone of this first chapter made me wonder if he might be gay. (He is.) I’ll get back to his interest in different sexual preferences later.
In the next chapter, we find out how it is that Berendt comes to be spending several months a year in Savannah. He gives us his credentials – writer and editor on Esquire and the New Yorker – and the very 1980s reason why he and some friends begin to get cheap flights to the South: you can spend a weekend in Charleston, or wherever, for the price of a restaurant meal. (There haven’t been as many references to New York restaurants and the prices they charge since American Psycho, a hymn to a particular brand of consumerism that feels familiar in the materialistic world Berendt’s Savannahians inhabit.) He begins mythologising the place before he even gets there: it’s mentioned in Treasure Island and Gone With The Wind, and provides the bizarre front page story in a newspaper that lines an old piece of furniture he’s always had….
Anyway, he leaves his friends in a more ordinary city, goes to Savannah alone – and he’s hooked. He’s captivated by its eccentric inhabitants, always with that hint of a dark underside we’ve already come across. There’s history – I lost count of how many ‘firsts’ there are in a few short paragraphs – and an explanation how the old city came to be built around squares. There’s the city’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who heard two gunshots as a child, and found his parents both dead – and on whose bench-shaped gravestone he finds himself sitting with a martini, tricked into this by one of Savannah’s mythologising old ladies.
And, this being the sort of book it is, there’s a very particular style of neighbour. Inevitably, he hears the all-night piano-laying and sees the stream of random-seeming visitors long before one of its occasional inhabitants comes calling. She’s Mandy and, inevitably, she’s extraordinary: statuesque, with a nimbus of peroxide blonde hair and makeup that he discovers she applies while driving the 90 minutes from her home every day while she catches up on the soaps on the portable tv on the passenger seat. Welcome to Berendt’s version of Savannah, where everybody is like this. Joe Odom certainly is. He’s the piano-playing neighbour and, if we believe what Berendt tells us, he lives exactly how he wants on an income of around nothing per week. When Berendt meets him he’s repairing the connection to next-door’s electricity supply. And so on.
Joe Odom is often popping up. He’s opening a piano bar with Emma, the 70-year-old ‘Lady of 6,000 songs’ who forms the main thread of another chapter. Or he’s evading subpoenas, or talking up the prospect of his next marriage – to Mandy, obviously – being more successful than the others. Or whatever. Joe is always moving on, literally or metaphorically – and to Berendt he’s a charming, funny, likeable crook who represents the underside of Savannah as firmly as Jim Williams, or Lee Adler (the neighbour he sees as a kind of rival), or any of the others in their big restored town-houses represent money and class. Ok.
For a while, Berendt is content spend time with one or other of Savannah’s characters. There’s the man who walks an invisible dog to abide by the terms of a former boss’s will, the other man who invented the technology behind the flea-collar but never made a cent from it – and now keeps a jar of poison that will kill everybody in the city if he drops it into the water supply – and the Lady of 6,000 songs given that title by Johnny Mercer himself. And there’s Chablis, given the longest chapter in the book so far to take Berendt into a world of drag queens, gay and bi sex – though never with our man himself, obviously. I can’t remember if it seemed incredibly liberating in the mid-90s. It all seems rather cosy and unthreatening now, and the set-piece episode of Chablis’s noisy final exit from the club has a sort of period charm.
Except… one of the less comfortable notes that Berendt keeps returning to is the issue of race. There’s the absurd sight of the Black man and white woman he often sees out jogging, but 50 or 100 yards apart. There’s Chablis’s story about her white boyfriend whose parents, absurdly, were desperate enough to give them $800 for an abortion, twice. And there’s the rule that not even the most notorious (female) perpetrator of serial affairs in Savanah can break: if you want to do it with a Black man, do it somewhere else. And, oh yeh: a century after Mark Twain had most of the characters in Huckleberry Finn routinely use the n-word as the term for Blacks – a feature that has had that novel banned or bowdlerised in some states in the US this year – Berendt does the same here. For all the book’s lightness of tone, he never wants us to forget that not every aspect of this city’s underside is roguishly charming.
Chapters 8-11 – to the end of Part 1
Berendt is clever. If ever we begin to think that all we’re getting are witty sketches of a Runyonesque world of city low-lifes, he reminds us that he has bigger fish to fry. Sure, in Chapter 8 we get Joe Odom doing what he does: moving on (to a new piano bar), paying for work done with cheques that, if we believe Berendt, nobody expects to be able to cash…. But then we’re in a darker place altogether, getting glimpses inside the head of Danny, Jim Williams’ young man. What we actually get is a version of him, as told to Berendt by Corinne, a girl who describes a terrifying day in his company. For her, he’s the ‘walking streak of sex’ who gives chapter 9 its title. We’re in Mercer House and a king-size bed, then we’re in a cemetery again in which she is spooked by the black hole that seems to inhabit him: to Danny, life is meaningless, and he’s brought her here to describe the big grave he’ll get if he’s buried from Mercer House…. When he’s close to killing both of them with his driving and gets stopped by the police, all she can see now is how vulnerable he is. Ok.
Next. Time to widen the angle again – and for Berendt to go to town on the idea of the versions of themselves that people present. They’ve been doing that all through the book, and the idea has already reached one apotheosis in Chablis’s creation of an entire persona for herself. In Chapter 10 we get something more subtle as Lee Adler lays before Berendt the scope of what he’s done for the city’s restoration. In the narrative that Adler presents, complete with copious examples that they drive by as he speaks, the culmination is the restoration of the Victorian quarter. But, even before we hear the dissenting voices that come later in the chapter, we begin to be a bit suspicious of the show-home – and show resident – complete with visitors’ book.
And when the other voices come, they are scathing. No, he didn’t leave the housing trust, he was thrown out. No, the Victorian quarter isn’t a model for public housing, it’s a new ghetto, and inappropriately high-maintenance for a tax-funded project. And it was very noticeable that when he was encouraging other people to move into the big old houses in the run-down squares in order to restore them, he stayed where he was in the safe part of town. Et cetera. Jim Williams, of course, can’t stand him – in fact, few of his former friends can stand him – and we realise we’ve just had a lesson in not believing anybody’s version of themselves in this city. Are the others right about Adler? Probably, partly – but one of them feels the need to apologise for being so ‘catty’. You bet.
Being the thoughtful host he’s become in the ‘City of Hosts’ – or is it hostesses? – Berendt has all this going on in the context of the rule-bound self-importance of a ‘Married Woman’s Card Club’ evening party. As he moves his narrative along, we keep getting these little insights into how the self-appointed aristocracy conducts its affairs. We also get another glimpse into one of the darker corners: Adler is Jewish, and one view is that he’s so pushy because he isn’t allowed in all the clubs in the city. (Berendt runs the view past us that the city’s most respectable Jew is only allowed in so the old families can congratulate themselves on their own broad-mindedness. It sounds about right.)
But suddenly it’s time for the ‘News Flash’ that ends Part 1. Preposterously – but, in that way of his, entertainingly – Berendt would have us believe that he hears about the big news story from Chablis: Jim Williams has shot Danny inside Mercer House. So that’s why Berendt started this story where he did, all those chapters back….
Part 2, Chapters 12-19
Does the gossip-column stuff begin to flag a bit? It’s a good job there’s a full-blown trial scene to liven things up – and to reinforce the point Berendt has already been making about how wary we have to be of people’s own presentations of themselves. I’m not only talking about versions of events of the night of whenever it was; in the prosecutor’s summing-up speech we get a version of the relationship between Jim Williams and Danny Hansford that is a world away from the ‘Hell, I’d have shot him too’ attitude that’s been too easy to buy into so far. Words like ‘psychotic’ have been bandied around as though psychosis is equivalent to intentional criminality. But in the cemetery in Chapter 9, Berendt was preparing us for the prosecution’s view of Danny in which he is the one being exploited. And after that, Williams is presented as anything but sympathetic…. I’ll get back to that.
First we get details of the shooting. At around 2.30 a.m. Williams shot Danny in self-defence. Or he shot him in cold blood. Danny had a plan to steal the $25,000 Williams had in the house. Or Williams had a plan to set Danny up as violent and unstable in a staged crime a month previously and then concoct the self-defence story…. To Williams, it’s all about money: the defence costs him tens of thousands of dollars – he lists the fees – and Danny’s mother is suing for $10million. At least, he sort of jokes, the voodoo woman he takes Berendt to see one midnight is cheap: $25 plus a few dimes to bury around a grave.
As events take this bizarre turn, Berendt has Joe Odom morph slowly into a kind of postmodernist chorus. ‘We’ve got a weirdo… slinking around town with a bottle of deadly poison. We’ve got a nigger drag queen, an old man who walks an imaginary dog, and now a faggot murder case. My friend, you are getting me and Mandy into one hell of a movie.’ (Ch 13) ‘… and – what’s that you were telling me about a minute ago? Oh yeah, voodoo! Voodoo! Witchcraft in a graveyard! Damn!’ (Ch 19) At least Joe can see the silver lining: with all these weirdos in the movie, at least he’ll be the good guy. And it’s all part of the self-mythologising: Joe, as he’s just been showing us with his latest ‘museum’ scam, is one of the best at that little game.
Williams has lost the case by now, and is out on bail pending his appeal; hence the midnight visit to Minerva. He tells Berendt he doesn’t believe all the hocus-pocus, but we know from a much earlier chapter that he firmly does believe in the power of the mind to influence events. It’s a side to him that sits strangely with the uber-sophisticate whose Christmas bash while he’s awaiting trial the first time is attended by everybody he considers worth worrying about. The quarter of the guests who don’t turn up, well, he doesn’t care about anyway. He says. Berendt introduces us, Hello! magazine-style, to some of the ones who are worth it. They’re rich, or rich and eccentric, or rich, eccentric and gloriously unconcerned about what anybody might think. But, isn’t that the main selling-point of everybody in this book?
Williams’ mother is also at the party and, like all Williams’ ‘true friends’ – the ones who come – she’s quite sure that the case against him will be thrown out. Savannahian justice is a hit-and-miss affair – there’s a harrowing story of an allegedly gay man beaten to death by four army thugs who receive only token prison sentences, and several about wealthy murderers who escape justice as a matter of course – and, as he has told the newspapers, ‘I haven’t done anything wrong.’ In the surreal place that Savannah is in the version Berendt has been giving us all along, he hasn’t. Not that it stops him being found guilty, the first time. I’ll let you know what happens in the retrial when I’ve read that far.
(Murder trials note: earlier this month I finished reading The Brothers Karamazov. I don’t know whether it was Dostoevsky who invented the technique of using a murder trial to wrong-foot the reader, to force a reassessment of characters we think we know fully. Whether he did or not, Berendt uses exactly the same technique in this book, having the prosecutor force us to look at the power relationship between Williams and Danny from a completely new perspective. It still works for me.)
In the gaps between the Jim Williams story – gaps that get longer, Berendt explains, because other matters force themselves to the attention of the Savannahians – we get to meet another grotesque or two, and find out how a few familiar ones are getting on in the two years covered by these chapters. In the first sentence of the preface to the edition I have – I only read the first sentence – Berendt describes how he ‘cast the book in the form of a novel.’ Keeping multiple storylines going over hundreds of pages is something he knows how to do: nothing about Joe for 50 pages? His museum idea is getting along fine, now he’s only ‘serving’ drinks, not selling them. Chablis been lying low? Have her gatecrash the Black debutantes’ ball after Berendt makes a point of not inviting her, and make him squirm, baby.
The continuous thread is the retrial and its aftermath. Williams’ new lawyer is one of the grotesques, more or less surgically attached, in Berendt’s presentation of him, to the Georgia team’s bulldog mascot. The chapter about him, the bulldog, and their preparations for the game he makes Berendt attend is only one page shorter than the one covering the second trial, reduced by careful sifting to ‘Notes on a Rerun’: I guess Berendt knows it would be hard for us to bear every twist and turn a second time. Besides, however many twists and turns there might be, the verdict is the same as before, and this time Williams is sent to jail.
Cue more grotesquery. Williams is allowed to stay in the local jail, not the nasty penitentiary we’ve heard all about. He has to share with raging queens and a prisoner who thinks he’s a dog, but at least their big shared cell has a phone. Sure, he has to make up excuses for his noisy wolfhound (or Scottie) as he clinches the sale of one of his paintings, and he has to dictate covering letters to people in Mercer House so they can have them typed on his beautiful headed paper… but the point is, he carries it off. He’s thinner and paler when he’s released again after another retrial is ordered after nearly two years, and some of the crowns have fallen off his teeth – but most of the crucial aspects of the persona he presents to the world are perfectly intact. That’s Savannah for you.
What else? There are chapters that make this book feel like edited-together pieces from a weekly newspaper column. Berendt would have us believe that he only finds out about the Black debutantes’ ball when one of the ladies mentions that it’s on the same day as Williams’ now defunct Christmas party, but no good journalist would miss such a thing. He gets himself invited, and we get a chapter of how the Blacks aim to outdo the white Establishment version that their ball is copied from. The ‘Black Minuet’ of the chapter title refers to the uber-classical dance they start with each year and, although Berendt shows us how it’s Chablis who mocks its pretensions mercilessly, he’s already started the process in his own subtle way. There can be something queasy about white Americans describing Black behaviour, even in the context of a description of how segregation is still the norm in upper- and middle-class circles. I’m reminded of the chapter in To Kill a Mockingbird, written over three decades earlier, in which the white kids attend the Black church and look on admiringly at how clever the Blacks are with the meagre resources at their disposal. As for the set piece scene of Chablis’s arrival and her outrageous behaviour at the ball – I don’t believe a word of it. But how could we ever check the truth?
There are other chapters in which Berendt catches up. There’s ‘Lunch’, in which Williams throws a lunch party at Mercer House by remote control – his mother is living there – and the cheeky invitation to the Adlers allows Berendt to catch up on Lee Adler’s too-willing acceptance of another honour for his good work, as though he does it single-handed. (I’ve just realised that Chablis at the ball is Berendt’s alter-ego, revealing the absurdities of these people’s pretensions to themselves. The only difference is that he does it to the whites.) There’s a catch-all ‘Talk of the Town’ chapter in which Berendt seems to hoover up some of the issues he hasn’t been able to smuggle in elsewhere, like the massive racial inequalities that lead to Savannah having the worst murder rate in the US, almost all amongst the Black underclass. If Part 1 contains tiny hints of this, Berendt seems to have decided that in Part 2 he tells it like it is.
Because, reader, we’re not far from the end now. There’s going to be a third trial, and there are threads to tidy up. Will the voodoo witch be proved all powerful, or clinically insane? Will Luther Drigger poison the city? Will Williams win this time? I’m sure we’ll find out.
Chapter 26 to the end
There are enough clues by the time we reach the final chapters to make us suspect that Berendt’s presentation of himself and the events he’s witnessed are as carefully constructed as everything else he’s described in Savannah. We find out the date of the murder, and it’s early in May 1981. Ok, so when exactly did Berendt arrive in Savannah for his eight-year on-and-off visit? I suppose it’s conceivable that he arrived in 1980, that the Christmas party he describes in Part 1 is the one before the murder. So why, when Williams invites him to whichever of his parties he’d like to come to, does he reply, ‘The one… least likely to involve gunfire’? It might be simply a reference to all the Lugers secreted around the house… or maybe it’s a clue that Berendt knew all about the murder before he came to visit and that it wasn’t the happy coincidence he presents to us. It would account for the implausible feel of Chablis’s announcement about the news of the murder at the end of Part 1….
Does it matter? Not at all, except as a marker of how careful Berendt has been throughout to construct a narrative that is satisfying on so many levels. And this point still applies if Berendt did arrive a few months before the murder, because he still chooses to delay the ‘News Flash’ chapter until nearly half-way through the book. He wants the murder to be seen firmly against the backdrop of an almost surreal Savannah landscape of weirdos and inward-looking internecine rivalries. I said a long time ago that he’s clever.
So, how does it all end? With another guilty verdict, reached with even fewer details than before – although on the way, one new piece of evidence does make the judge wake up for a few minutes. This time, Williams is allowed to stay out on bail before trial number four – a record for Georgia, as Berendt is pleased to tell us – to be held in Augusta. (Which is the second oldest city in Georgia, as Berendt is also pleased to tell us. Somebody should do a count of the sheer number of facts in this book.)
There’s a teasing little chapter called ‘Another Story’, in which – wait for it – Williams tells Berendt that he’s going to tell the truth, that he did fake the shooting because Danny’s gun had the safety catch on. Gulp. As it happens, his lawyer comes up with an even better story and Williams shelves his idea…. But doesn’t that put Berendt in a difficult position? Doesn’t he know something that he should report, fine upstanding citizen that he is? He asks Joe Odom, who is a lawyer after all – and Joe laughs. Berendt must be the only person in Savannah who doesn’t know about that version – and we’ve had yet another object lesson in not buying whatever anybody tries to sell us in this town.
Anyway, in a chapter teasingly entitled ‘Glory’ – there’s a lot of teasing in these final chapters – we find out that a feature film of that title is being shot partly inside Mercer House. But, as a kind of afterthought, Berendt lets us know that Williams is acquitted.
And if the early parts of the book are characterised by gossip, in these last chapters Berendt gives us Southern Gothic in spades. Or in the little trowel-loads of grave-dirt that Minerva the witch deals in. She’s always there with her advice, or going visiting in cemeteries, or talking to the dead as though they’re recalcitrant children. Berendt builds up a far more rounded picture of her alternative universe of awkward or malicious spirits, so that when she tells Williams about the intransigence of one or other of them it’s just like all those squabbles of the living that we’ve seen so much of. Ok.
Now, imagine you’re a writer, and you know – wait for it – that Jim Williams died not long after the trial. And you have a character who thinks she’s been talking to the vengeful spirit of the man he shot. What are you going to have her say as she visits the victim’s grave at midnight? Might it be something like, ‘I think I’m hearin’ somethin’, but I ain’t sure what it is…. Sounds like laughin’. Dammit, it is laughin’’? Well, that’s what Berendt gives us, and we can believe it if we want to. And… ‘less than a month later…’ Et cetera.
What have I missed ? Berendt ties off all the threads – Joe Odom still isn’t in jail, Luther Driggers still hasn’t poisoned the water – and he won’t, he tells Berendt, because the way water comes to the city makes it impossible. Like Chablis, like Jim Williams, like everybody in Savannah including, of course, John Berendt, he’s nothing but a tease.