Southern comfort

Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt Vintage $60 IN the southern states of America, blossom cities which seem as far removed from New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles - or Hong Kong - as one could be. A sprawling city of wide boulevards, garden squares, renovated Georgian mansions and townhouses is the setting for John Berendt's compulsively-titled Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

The city of Savannah is a tropical hothouse and its inhabitants as wild, eccentric and defiant as the south breeds them.

The novel is a non-fiction work in the vein of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, only better. Curiously for a true tale - with, Berendt acknowledges, embellishments and rearrangement of events to carry the momentum - the plot is secondary and the climax almost an afterthought.

The real grist and beauty of the book is carried in its characters: a southern belle with a difference, a self-made millionaire antiquities collector who has made Savannah's finest residence his home, the country-clubbers and the regulars who breakfast on Coca-Cola, eggs and bacon at Clary's drugstore.

Berendt, a New Yorker, explains how he chanced upon Savannah after recognising the similarity in prices between the bill for the meal he had ordered at one of the Big Apple's nouvelle cuisine eateries, and advertisements for weekend flights.

He flitted on weekend visits to several cities before being fixed by the magnetic embrace of Savannah. His southern holidays grew to the stage where the city became home, a book began to take shape, and the novelty of Berendt's status as author-in-residence opened doors and loosened tongues.

The tale opens with a tour of the grand and stately home of Jim Williams. At 50, with silvering temples, Williams is the archetypal distinguished Georgian host. Invitations to his lavish Christmas balls, he says, are the subject of fervent prayers throughout the year.

Williams' penchant for Faberge art takes him to European auctions, tales circulate of how he refused to sell his home to Jackie Onassis when she visited, and he is renowned for venting his ire at 'Hollywood blow-ins', film crews who roll into town and cover Savannah's main streets with dirt to film period movies.

In a fit of anger over one such crew, Williams turns out an old Nazi flag from his collection of wartime oddities and rarities and throws a spanner in the works by draping the blood-red symbol out of a top-floor window.

It is an act he will never live down. Why, asks a perplexed local rabbi, did he have a Nazi flag at hand anyway? Black sex siren Chablis swings into Berendt's tale when she discovers his car parked in just the right spot to give her a lift home from her monthly medical injection.

He soon discovers, when she proudly thrusts a breast at him, that the injections are hormones and Chablis formerly went by the name of 'Frank'. Now she is a burlesque dancer in a Savannah club.

Savannah is a city where lace curtains almost hide absurdities, alcoholism, faded grandeur and lost lives. Piano blues roll from open doorways where adultery is committed within - but always with a twist of humour, sometimes wry, sometimes rowdy.

If Berendt is beguiled by the south, he is seduced by its people. The plot only makes its presence felt on page 167, after a meandering but very readable walk through the homes and lives of the rich, poor, straight-laced and oddball.

Finally, shots ring out through the tropical night and Jim Williams finds himself charged with the murder of Danny Hansford, the rebellious, smouldering young James Dean-type with whom he shares his house and, as rumours soon have it, his bed.

Danny has already stamped his mark as a sex symbol coveted - and paid for - by many men and women. He drives too fast, drinks too much, flares into violent rages and can find a reason to resent most people.

Williams, who has taken him on as a dashing but dangerous protege, shoots dead an alcohol-soused Danny early one morning.

There follows a protracted series of trials filled with police blunders, frame-ups and whispered innuendos at silver-service tea parties. Snipers and supporters all have an interest in the outcome.

Williams' fate is unravelled as life continues around the trial. And southern life is so peculiar and compulsive, the plot is almost an embellishment - a cherry in the exotic cocktail of Savannah.