One of the (many) cool things about living in Asheville and the greater Western North Carolina (WNC) environs is what a robust literary culture there is here. Now, obviously, Asheville is teeming with people who have artistic pursuits of all kinds—it seems like every other person here has some sort of artsy side hustle—but there are quite a few prominent/established authors based in these mountains.
It makes sense. Asheville’s booming tourism industry has always meant that the confluence of change/tradition and us/them has always been around, a thriving breeding ground for stories and themes. It also makes sense because there are plenty of strange, insular little mountains towns that are just a bit slower to catch up to modern progress than everyone else, which also gives writers much to mine—I’ve always wondered why my own home of Northeastern PA, who shares quite a few similarities to the WNC region and ethos never spawned as much literary content…I’ve always thought that a real miss.
Anyway, since moving down, I’ve been trying to make a concerted effort to read as many local/southern writers as I could. I thought that in 2023 since I’ve already launched my first blog subseries—Overheard on Haywood Road—that I might as well launch a second: Southern Book Review, where I’ll provide my (unasked-for) takes on the new southern literature I’m consuming (I’ve already dabbled in this briefly).
First up: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which is notably not Western North Carolinian or Western North Carolinian-adjacent in any way, but is southern (notice how I called this series “Southern Book Review” as opposed to “WNC Book Review” to give myself a wider berth), and more importantly is probably the definitive work of literature about Savannah, Georgia, somewhere that I am visiting for the first time…today.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil has always been on my radar (and always in my overfilled Amazon cart) as one of those works I should read because people said it was good, but when I finalized this trip (which I’m very excited about—I’d like to spend 2023 doing a few nice, southern road trips), I figured I’d pull the trigger and make it happen.
My take? This will be a divisive book. While it has a plot, it often feels like it doesn’t—the central mystery (the crime advertised on the back cover) doesn’t happen till well past a quarter into the story. Even then, it sometimes takes a back seat to a host of C, D, and E plots and characters that give the story (if this could be defined as s story) its flavor. If you need a strong plot, I’d say skip Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. If you like observations about people, cultural ruminations, and straight-up weirdos presented without (much) judgment, then I’d say give it a go. I happen not to be a big plot guy myself. I’d rather spend time observing interesting people doing interesting things than solving a mystery or getting embroiled in some kind of scam (which is to say, Mad Men, is my favorite television show).
While some of the language choices are outdated (it was written in 1994, and the term “Blacks” is bandied about a bit more than my 2023 brain is comfortable with), what struck me while reading is how prescient and progressive the book is regarding nuanced depictions/observations of Savannah’s Black and LGBTQ communities. And while it spends much (even most?) of its time with Savannah’s old-money aristocracy (more than I’d like…I’m getting more and more “eat the rich” with every passing year), by the end of the book, you realize that it’s sort of more a searing indictment about their insularity and unwillingness to branch out, then it is their “charming” idiosyncrasies—does the same thing for unbridled wealth that Succession does: portray it as ultimately depressing (my take, anyway…and of course, I’m sure there are people who’ll find these characters perfectly charming the same way I’ve met people who consider Succession aspirational).
I enjoyed Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and it made me more excited for my Savannah trip than I already was. I also see this becoming a frequent re-read, which is high praise.