A voodoo shaman, a transvestite prostitute, even an expert chef of rat poisons: Author John Berendt is a master at capturing eccentric real life characters, and he often spends years crafting intricately detailed and descriptive prose.
“As a writer, you have to love your characters. I love even the ones I don’t like,” explained Berendt before a crowd that was definitely well into the aging process, during an Oct. 1 event presented by Arts & Lectures at Victoria Hall Theatre.
Berendt loves his characters so much that he spent nine years constructing his latest book, The City of Falling Angels – a novel that is clearly the product of the new journalistic style he learned while working as a columnist for Esquire magazine, as well as his meticulous awareness of every detail that characterizes the Italian city of Venice.
It was Berendt’s attention to the unconventional that first captivated readers back in 1994. His first book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, spent a record four years on the New York Times Bestseller List and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction in 1995.
Back then, his journalistic ability to weave himself into any culture paid off enormously, garnering instant fame for Berendt, Berendt’s bestselling book and the novel’s mysterious setting of Savannah, Georgia.
Hardly heard of outside the southern United States, Berendt’s story put Savannah, Georgia on the eccentric’s map. Tourism to the quaint town rose noticeably – 46 percent since the publication of Midnight – and despite lingering opposition from the Right Wing concerning the morals of Berendt’s characters, he has since been awarded the keys to the city on two separate occasions.
“The duty of a writer is to find the defects in people,” Berendt said before quickly pointing out that he wasn’t the first author to exploit this engaging technique. But defects aside, it was Berendt’s growing love affair with Savannah that allowed him to penetrate Savannah’s inner circles and create such an internationally successful work.
And for 10 years the questions remained: Could Berendt create another book as gripping and unique as Midnight? Was it possible to find another city as isolated and as infested with peculiar characters? It may have taken 10 years since Midnight’s first publication to finally finish it, but Berendt found exactly what he and his readers had been searching for during what was supposed to be a short vacation to Venice, Italy in January of 1996.
Centered around the aftermath of a fire that devastated the La Fenice, Venice’s last standing opera house, and the gossip that trickled through every corner of Venetian circles about the blaze for years to come, Berendt takes his readers on a cultural expedition into the hearts and minds of a society where one’s role changes with the rise and fall of the Adriatic.
Berendt begins his book with a Venetian’s insight into what makes this mysterious city click. “‘Everyone in Venice is acting,'” explained Count Girolamo Marcello to the journalist during one of their many exchanges after the fire.
Venice, Berendt soon learns, is a city centered on performances. Between the La Fenice and the famous Carnival, Venetians take pride in the uncertainty of a life closely tied to the stage. Where ambiguous grey supersedes clear-cut black and white, Berendt discovers that the Venetian way of life revolves around embellishment.
It is this ambiguity that allows Venice to retain its mysterious demeanor, yet the double meaning of the book’s title hints at the darker side to every Venetian.
“‘Beware of falling angels’ was actually written on a sign posted outside the Santa Maria della Salute Church in the early 1970’s,” elaborated Berendt before the silent and attentive Victoria Hall Theatre audience. “Before the church’s restoration, some of the marble angel statues began to fall onto the ground below. [I used the title to explain] that some people who think they are angels are really not.”
Ultimately, Berendt’s newest novel is a descriptive gondola ride through the overarching corruption of city officials and their disappointing neglect of the city’s most prized possession. The book also expertly examines the cooperation of the city’s citizens in neglecting their landmarks, and provides confirmation of this angelic fall from grace as it draws the curtain back to reveal Venice’s eccentric inner workings.