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A Savannah Story

By John Berendt

Random House, $23

Reviewed by Chris Lavin

When you grow up in a small town, inevitably some scribe from the big city blows through. He chats up a few citizens and then writes passionately about the town's odd characters. The story invariably sums up the whole town with kind but condescending simplicity.

My hometown was in rural upstate New York. The big city reporters were from New York City. It was as if those New York writers had been so long in the big time, they were surprised to see there was life in the hinterlands and found it all, well, just charming.

As John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil unfolds, his sweeping generalizations about Savannah, Ga., have that same suspicious ring to them. He portrays Savannah as an isolated, antebellum town that in its heart of hearts longs to be a sort of Southern Brigadoon _ sheltered from progress that might threaten its quirky gentility.

Berendt began traveling outside of New York City when he noted that the cost of fine dinners in Manhattan and cheap weekend flights had approached each other: Instead of eating out, he hopped on an airplane. Eventually, he adopted Savannah as a sort of home away from the big city. He tells his story of the town through a series of character sketches _ of a nouveau riche antique dealer, a transvestite lip-synch performer, a piano-playing hedonist lawyer, a fading debutante and her poison-wielding boyfriend, a male hustler, an exclusive society card party club, and a voodoo practitioner.

The lives of these characters cross from time to time as dramas and mini-dramas unfold over the years in Savannah. How their lives support Berendt's portrayal of the town at large is never very clear or convincing. Even one of the characters seems to raise an eyebrow at Berendt's choice of characters as an accurate reflection of Savannah, referring to the author as a "fella from New York who decided to write a book about us and started filling it with drag queens and murderers and corpses and bottles of poison and . . . Voodoo!"

Whether or not Berendt got Savannah right or not, however, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is engrossing for a more traditional reason: At its heart is an engrossing murder story. Two of the characters mentioned previously (and I won't give it away here), end up in the kind of scandal/murder drama that transfixes a town and peels away the veneer of society life.

Berendt allows the murder story to unfold nicely and handles the legal technicalities and the political intrigues between prosecutor and defense with a nice touch. Avoiding too much legalese, he clearly explains the strategies and missteps pursued by both sides. Through his friendship with the defendant, Berendt had an inside view of some of the legal proceedings and, where he couldn't witness first hand, he reconstructs the events in a convincing manner.

This may have been a more effective book had Berendt simply stuck to the murder the way, say, Calvin Trillin does in Killings. Instead Berendt wanders further afield, perhaps, to make points about this Southern city, but the story moves best and with clearest vision when it is dealing with the crime and aftermath. The other characters are interesting _ but too much so. They are either too rich or too quirky to be held out as ways to check the pulse of a place. (It would be like portraying all of St. Petersburg through the lives of Snell Island's wealthy and a few Central Avenue down-and-out types who trim Snell Island lawns between binges.)

In the end, Midnight is a sort of cross between Trillin's Killings story and Steinbeck's Cannery Row character studies. Trillin clearly was writing non-fiction; Steinbeck had the freedom of the fiction writer. Berendt borrows from both. Although essentially writing a true story, he uses some fiction techniques, bends time and disguises a few names and descriptions to protect privacy _ "storytelling liberties," he calls them. That probably will offend purists, but it doesn't undermine the essential value of this book: a good murder tale well told.

Chris Lavin is editor of the Times' Discovery and Sunday Floridian sections.