Rich story and satisfying read Jan 10, 2009
An appropriately titled book really pleases me. The title of this book is excellent, poetically and in the context of the story. It originated from a perfect scene, which was located in the perfect spot in the book: not too close to the beginning (I really don’t care how close to the end the reasoning is revealed, so long as it is eventually made clear in some way).
The author tells the story from his perspective: he observes and earns the trust of a man who is being tried for murder. We follow the subject of the murder investigation through several trials and appeal processes. At one point, he contracts the services of a voodoo priestess to help him curse his enemies (the crown attorney and key witnesses), and lift off a little of the bad luck he had been having.
Depending on your opinion of the effectiveness of voodoo spirituality, Minerva could have been an expendable character: a sidenote with no effect on the action of the story in any way. However, by naming the book after one of Minerva’s rituals, the author and John Berendt emphasizes what was significant about her contribution. The graveyard scene highlights the high cost of the the murder suspect’s pride, his focus on money, and his moral shallowness. Most notably, however, Minerva uncovers his unwillingness to forgive. Despite the man's memories of his victim’s quintessential need for affection, he is unable to qualify him as anything more than scum. This quality foreshadows the revelation of the murderer's character that we get at the end of the book, when he trust's Berendt enough to tell him a secret that never comes out in court.
This revelation of William’s character is consistent with what Berendt saw as the primary quality of Savannah: preservation. Their passion was remaining the same, and they reject any outside interest that could come at the expense of their regular habits. This fierce self-preservation motivated Williams, too.
Is a masterful title a literary device? If so, Berendt uses this one to its utmost effect. The way it emphasizes themes and lessons is reminiscent of novel-writing. Non-fiction attempts to grasp the same universal values that fiction does, but isn’t allowed the same literary tricks. Did Berendt employ one trick too many? The way everything fits together so nicely seems to suggest he did. The liberties he took were one of the greatest criticisms of the book, and perhaps what cost him the Pulitzer Prize.
In this book about Savannah, Berendt talks about the mystique of the city inspiring him to spend more and more time there. The opening chapter places Berendt in a conversation between Jim Williams, the protagonist of the book, and Danny Williams, who is eventually killed by Williams. Berendt never witnessed that scene. The first 170 pages of the book wander by like a good conversation, peppered with gossip, anecdote and character. A reader who had skipped the dust jacket would not know what the book was about until the end of chapter 11, when we find out that Williams is arrested for the murder of Danny Hansford.
However, the collection of data that Berendt engaged in was hardly so aimless. His first visit to Savannah was more than a year after Hansford’s death. Not only did he not witness the scene between Danny and Jim Williams, his associations with the other characters were not exactly the way he described them. They all knew about the crime before he started visiting with them, hearing their stories, or watching them interact.
Berendt put the murder in the middle of the book, "which I think made it much better,” he said in a New York Times story, “because you knew Savannah before all this happened."
I think I agree with his logic. I greatly enjoyed the book, and Jim Williams was in no way the main reason I did. I did not find him to be worthy of a huge amount of attention. Of all, he seems to be the most unpleasant character. He shared secrets with the author, but it was mostly gossip about his neighbours and enemies in town. We learn very little about him, except what comes out through his murder trials.
The strong sense of setting helped the story. A lot of emphasis is put into describing the town, and as I moved through it, following the different stories, I understood where I was perfectly. Although I was aware that the author was messing with the timeline of events while I was reading, it didn’t matter because as a reader, I was content to be so forcefully rooted in the setting, I didn’t need a strong consciousness of the sequence of events, as well. The graveyard is central; it makes repeat appearances in the narrative. The jacket photo and the reference to the “garden of good and evil” emphasize this. The whole story seems haunted by the dead, and a town so fanatical about self-preservation can afford to remember that everybody ends up underground. Minerva’s efforts to engage the dead into affecting the events of reality fail, but her reminders to those still alive are what are most valuable. Berendt succeeds in conveying this lesson.