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Sex, Murder, the South . . . and He's Surprised His Book's a Hit?

November 28, 1994|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DEDHAM, Mass. — Once he found a publisher, John Berendt acknowledged with a half laugh, there was the marketing problem. No one quite knew where to put his book.

Was it a travelogue? True crime? Weird sex? Or general nonfiction, a first-time author's sure sojourn in Purgatory? Maybe "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" (Random House, 1994) belonged in the regional section, alongside stories about yuppies from the Northwest and anthologies of snow literature from Minnesota.

Berendt can afford the whole laugh now. Since its publication in January, his book has probably shown up in every one of those categories. More significant, as far as Berendt and his publisher are concerned, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" quickly lodged itself on national bestseller lists; 37 weeks, at last count, on the New York Times list alone.

This makes "Midnight," as fans refer to this chatty account of the murder of a young hustler by his well-to-do male patron, eligible for the much-coveted title of publishing phenom. A gay murder, a black drag queen and an assortment of quirky Savannah, Ga., characters did not exactly fit the formula for best-selling success.

Berendt's then-agent and longtime friend Lynn Nesbitt dismissed the book as "too local," and Random House had modest expectations at best. Berendt wrote it with no advance and drew a respectable, but certainly not astounding, figure when the manuscript was finally sold by his new agent, Amanda Urban.

And now, Berendt said, relishing this twist in his publishing tale, "They're translating it into Norwegian. German! Japanese! Italian! Portuguese!"

He made these disclosures recently in an unlikely setting for a best-selling author--a high school English class. After a 22-city promotional tour, plus a "Good Morning, America" segment in which Berendt led viewers on a tour of Savannah, he found himself in front of 15 seniors at the fashionable Noble & Greenough School here early one morning.

Berendt, a former editor of New York magazine who now writes a column for Esquire, said he was intrigued when a student from Bill Bussey's "Madness in Literature" class contacted him at home in New York. After reading essays Bussey's students wrote about his book, he paid his own way to fly to this Boston suburb.

After all, Berendt said, "It's one thing for your book to be bought. It's another to have it taught."

Leaning against the bright green chalkboard, Berendt was peppered with questions. Were any of the characters in "Midnight" upset about being included in the story, asked a boy in a striped tie, "or were they psyched?" A girl with waist-length green hair wondered if Berendt had made it onto the select male-only Christmas party list of one of his major characters. Another boy inquired how 12th-grade English class had affected his writing.

It was a feast for any literary ego, and Berendt--at 55 looking a bit like an overgrown preppie himself in his slacks and blue blazer--beamed clear through this adulatory interrogation. Admiration was what he had in mind when he embarked on his seven-year writing project, drawing him back to Savannah again and again. He knew he had a good story, and he figured his book might become "a sort of cult favorite." But far from fantasizing about a bestseller, Berendt said, he dreamed of critical approval.

In large part he was rewarded. "One could almost be reading Nancy Mitford or Evelyn Waugh," wrote Los Angeles Times book critic Richard Eder. "Berendt achieves their social comedy."

But some critics faulted him for blending fact with fabrication--confusing the reader, these critics said, and thrusting the book into some nether world between novel and nonfiction.

In front of the students, Berendt raised the same defenses he offers in private. "My argument is that most nonfiction books are reconstruction," he said. If he set out today to write about Franklin D. Roosevelt, he said, he would probably have a tough time with the kind of intimate conversations that tend to go unrecorded.

"I'm sorry," Berendt said. "I reconstruct."

*

Not one character in his book is made up, and none is a composite, Berendt said. But several have had their names changed, and in some cases, Berendt presents as fact actions and conversations that were only described to him. One graphic sex scene reads as if Berendt had been lurking in the bushes with binoculars. In fact, it took place before he even visited Savannah--and by the time he did, one of the parties involved was dead.

Berendt conceded that this was a form of creative license. But this liberty, as well as some restructuring, made his book more entertaining. "And I think all writing should be entertaining," he said. "Legal documents, whatever."

Savannah was so strange without embellishment, he said, that he omitted "things that were true . . . because I knew the reader wouldn't believe them." His characters held little back, even when they saw him with a notebook or tape recorder.

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