Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Cannonball Read #6: City of Falling Angels by John Berendt

There are four books that I have read so often that I have actually worn the bindings out to the point that they had to be replaced. Those books are:
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  • Four Letters of Love, Niall Williams (I killed TWO copies of this one.)
  • I'm a Stranger Here Myself, Bill Bryson
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was a book that just felt amazing. Berendt created this stunning portrait of Savannah, awash in spanish moss and shadowed by stately homes, populated by eccentrics and intellectuals, and as you read, you could actually see what he was talking about and smell the Georgian air. The image of the American South has come to be wrapped up in a sort of cocoon of grossness - the stereotype of idiocy, the racist aspect of the whole Confederate Pride situation - but Midnight shucked off all of that discordant junk and held up to the light all the reasons that the South was and is worth fighting for. The characters in the book are wonderfully rendered, and all of them display in different ways that certain gentility that's so revered in the South, along with the sharp edges that make navigating Southern society such a trick. And of course, there is Savannah. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a love letter to the city, pure and simple, and anyone who has ever visited Savannah knows that it is completely justified. The book is a stunning rookie effort, and I've dragged my copies all over creation, unwilling to let them go.

Obviously, then, it was with high hopes that I started Berendt's second book, City of Falling Angels. I actually swiped it from my Dad, who has taken to buying interesting looking books in duplicate (and occasionally triplicate) with a mind towards sharing the love - friends and loved ones take note: this is my future - along with one of my next books, Grand Avenues (about city planning in DC). I was disappointed, but weirdly.

The writing is still stunning, and you couldn't ask for more in a scenic location than Venice. The characters are fully formed and fascinating as always...but in a way, that's sort of the problem. City of Falling Angels is probably excellent in its own right, but having read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, it seemed like a retread, and the story somewhat beyond the pale. There are a lot of fasincating people out there in the world, but it seems strange that John Berendt is ostensibly some kind of human magnet for the most interesting and unique people in ANY city. Let me see if I can explain this better.

Midnight in the Garden of Evil...Berendt decides to stay in Savannah after a chance visit, and while he is there, a notable society member is murdered. The city is pitched into an uproar as the victim's thorny personality and questionable relationships come to light, and all of this is surrounded by eccentrics and high society...a man who keeps flies tethered to his lapel, a transvestite who crashes a debutante ball, a woman who dresses all in green and rarely gets out of bed, a couple including a man who came from the North and never left, several society couples in fierce competition for societal dominance. Berendt winds up strangely wrapped up in the whole thing, attending glamorous parties thrown by all and sundry, and ingratiating himself into Savannah society as an observer.

City of Falling Angels...Berendt arrives in Venice hot on the heels of a fire that destroyed one of Venice's most famous and elegant theatres to find accusations of arson, wrongdoing, and corruption. All of this is surrounded by eccentrics and high society...a man who imitates various uniformed officials, Ezra Pound's mysterious mistress and her daughter, a woman who dresses all in white whose familial struggles threaten to destroy their stately mansion, a pair of UK ex-pats who came to Venice and never left, several society couples who constantly fight for societal dominance. Berendt winds up strangely wrapped up in the whole thing, attending glamorous parties thrown by all and sundry, and ingratiating himself into Venitian society as an observer.

Even from these brief synopses, you can see how similar the stories are, and you'll just have to take my word that they feel even more similar. It's not that the people aren't interesting or that they aren't's their parallel juxtaposition between the two books that makes them ring somewhat false. I also have a hard time believing that Berendt so easily ingratiates himself into rather high society with such ease, particularly in the case of societies that apparently (according to Berendt himself, which of course raises questions about the veracity of these statements) are quite insular and reluctant to admit outsiders. Look, I travel, and wherever I go, I have no problem meeting interesting people, but I also don't immediately get taken by the hand and hauled into insular society festivities, especially in areas where people who live in the cities all their lives are not admitted to the same degree. Berendt still describes himself as an outsider, but in both these books, he is embraced as a confidant and partner in crime. Really? That's how your travel goes, John Berendt? Hmm.

Bottom line is that both these books are worth your time. The writing is far above the average and the stories are engaging. That being said, I recommend picking one or the other (go by your level of interest in either Savannah or Venice) and forgetting the other exists.

Also, skip the Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil movie. I love me some John Cusack but UGH what a mess. Actually, I retract that. Rent the movie, fast forward to the part where you see Chablis (you'll know what I mean if you read Midnight), drop jaw accordingly, and then take that sucker back to wherever you got it. She plays herself in the movie and it's cool as hell to see, since her character was so fascinating in the book.

398 pages

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