WASHINGTON — The sun never sets on "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," which just clocked an unprecedented four years on the New York Times nonfiction hardback bestseller list.
No one expected one week on the charts, let alone 209 and counting. Not John Berendt, who thought he had written a good book but not necessarily a popular one. Not the first agent he went to, who declined to represent it because she thought it wouldn't sell. Not the publisher, whose first printing was nothing to brag about. Not the bookstores, whose initial orders were modest.
Reviewers liked it, some of them very much indeed. But they didn't predict huge success, knowing all too well what sells in America. Usually, it's not a collection of character sketches built around the murder of a gay man with a starring role for a black drag queen against the backdrop of a Southern city that many people couldn't find on a map of Georgia.
It's not that there are no explanations for "Midnight." There are too many. Since Berendt is the author, he gets to offer the first one.
"Basically, I view writing as entertainment, even if it's deadly serious," he says, drinking iced tea in a hotel cafe. "I believe in giving the audience a payoff every so often, in surprise, suspense, hilarity or whatever. Writing is theater. You're not just putting stuff on paper; you've got to pull in an audience."
He's 58, intense and loquacious. Berendt spent much of his career editing and writing for Esquire, starting in the '60s. Esquire taught him to rewrite and rewrite and refine, to get as much information into as few words as possible.
"Midnight" didn't start with a fat contract that Berendt was under instant pressure to meet. He had no contract at all. He was free to write and rewrite his story until he got it right, which took seven years. Maybe the 2.5 million people who have bought a copy were responding to its craftsmanship.
They also might be responding to the hybrid nature of "Midnight." As the author's note in the back of the book says, "certain storytelling liberties" were taken. This has gotten him in trouble with people who believe in the purity of nonfiction, but it gives his tale the juiciness of a novel. "I wrote in unconnected stories, and the trick I played is to make it sound like one," Berendt says.
The most vivid element in the book is the lush, eccentric, beautiful city of Savannah. Post-"Midnight" tourism is up nearly 50%.
A distinct minority view holds that the book is so successful because it's so bad. "I'm forced to conclude that this was one of those cultural phenomena where people buy something or go to see something because it somehow became fashionable," a Minneapolis reader commented to the online bookstore Amazon.com. "And, once having been duped, nobody wants to admit it, so they continue to recommend it to others."
Design has contributed. It's taller than most books, with a lovely dust jacket showing a cemetery angel. "It helped, believe me," says one of those involved in the book's publication. "Too many books are butt-ugly. This one looks like a gift."
There's another reason no book has been on the bestseller list this long. ("Midnight" actually fell off the Times list twice, in the fall of '95 and '96, when the big Christmas books appeared. Then in January it went back on.) When paperback publishers buy reprint rights from the hardcover houses, they issue their cheaper copy as soon as contractually possible. Any hardcover still on the list after a year naturally falls off.
But in these days of conglomerates, paperback and hardcover publishers are often under the same corporate roof. So, if a book is still ripping along a year after it was published, the paperback can be postponed indefinitely. This also happened to Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes"--still on the hardcover bestseller list after nearly two years.
Since many stores now heavily discount bestseller list titles, books that get on the list tend to sell even more. If they sell enough, they begin selling in the price warehouses, which move vast quantities of only a few titles.
In the same way some people are famous for being famous, "Midnight" has started to sell copies just because it's been selling so many copies. It's popular enough to be a safe gift.
Finally, the book has offered endless opportunities for promotion. Every newspaper and travel magazine seems to have done at least one article on Savannah keyed to the book. Berendt has been on "Good Morning America" five times.
Once the puzzle of how "Midnight" got so big is answered, a second question presents itself. Will John Berendt ever finish another book? Better yet, should he?
An old friend, Gay Talese, waggishly believes Berendt should quit while ahead. "I told John something to the effect of 'Never write again.' The success of this book is so inexplicable, so illogical, so mystifying that it does not provide a basis on which to build anything.