Hannibal Free Public Library

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

John Berendt

September 17, 2007

About the book…
John Berendt's nonfiction Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil reads like a modern Gothic southern tale. Berendt weaves two narratives. One chronicles the lives of Savannah's decadent socialites and such unforgettable characters as a voodoo priestess, a red-necked gigolo, and a cross-dressing beauty queen. The other story traces the sensational murder that took place in Savannah's grandest mansion in 1981, turning this genteel party town upside down for nearly a decade.

About the author…
John Berendt was born in Syracuse, New York, in 1939. He graduated from Harvard College, where he was an editor on the Harvard Lampoon. From 1961 to 1969 he was an associate editor of Esquire. In 1985 Berendt fell under the spell of Savannah after paying the city a brief visit, and moved there to start work on his first book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. He spent the better part of eight years there. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was published in 1994 to critical acclaim and enormous popular success; Berendt received the 1994 Southern Book Award and was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. John Berendt now lives in New York City.

Discussion Questions:
1. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil begins with a portrait of Jim Williams, the man around whom the book's "plot" revolves. Yet the author sweeps Williams offstage after one chapter and we do not encounter him again until the end of Chapter 11, when we learn that he shot Danny Hansford. What does Berendt accomplish by doing this? Is Midnight truly Williams's story, and if not, who is its real protagonist?


2. Do you come away from this book believing that Williams is guilty of murder? How does the evidence that surfaces during his trials reinforce or contradict the impression that Berendt conveys elsewhere in the book? How do Williams's friends view him? Is it possible to believe in Williams's guilt yet still feel sympathy for him?


3. Berendt portrays a Savannah that is full of mysterious characters. How much do we end up knowing about the people in this book?


4. John Berendt describes Savannah as inward turning, a "semitropical terrarium" and Miss Harty says "The whole of Savannah is an oasis. We are isolated." What role does geography, from the location of Joe Odom's latest apartment to Savannah's position on the Georgia coast, play in this book? Do you feel that Savannah and the South could be considered characters in Midnight?


5. Danny Hansford is only one of the many people whose violent deaths we learn about in the course of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Judging by their stories, what does Savannah (or Savannah society) deem grounds for murder? Why are so few of Jim Williams's friends disturbed by the charges against him? Given the casualness with which Savannahians greet the Hansford case, why are they so shocked by the news (p.333) that their city has been declared the murder capital of the United States?


6. It is almost immediately obvious that Jim Williams is gay and that Danny is his gigolo, but no one comments on this until the first murder trial. Williams's greatest fear seems to be that his mother will learn the truth about his sexual orientation. How do Berendt's Savannahians--both gay and straight--variously conceal, deny, or accommodate their sexuality?


7. "We don't do black-on-white in Savannah," Joe Odom tells Berendt. "A lot may have changed here in the last twenty years, but not that" [p. 54]. What role does race--and the elaborate restrictions that surround it--play in this book? How would you characterize the relations between Berendt's white and black characters?


8. The "Garden of Good and Evil" is Bonaventure cemetery, which the author visits at the book's beginning and end. What role do the dead play in Berendt's narrative? How do they influence its action and haunt the living characters?


9. Frustrated by his attorneys' failure to win an acquittal, Williams hires a conjure woman, Minerva, to work on his behalf. How successful are Minerva's efforts compared to those of more conventional specialists?


10. How do we end up feeling about the author, John Berendt, as a character in the book? What does he accomplish by making himself a character in his book--or, rather, by creating a character who happens to have his name and profession? Do you think Berendt's being a "northerner" influences the credibility of his story and his viewpoint of the South?


11. Was Danny Hansford responsible for his own death? Do you come away from this book believing that he was about to kill Williams or that he was merely a pawn? How did Danny fit into Savannah's rigidly stratified society? Why--and at whom--might he be laughing at the book's ending?

Questions adapted from and courtesy of Random House