The Meta-Book

Midnight‘s author John Berendt returns to the scene of the crime.

It’s an odd sensation to hear voices from beyond the grave, especially when your concept as a reader, without benefit of photos, videos or wiretaps of cell phones, has cemented certain characters in your imagination.

But two decades after reading Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and nearly 18 after hearing Kevin Spacey utter, “Yuh mutha? Indeed.” in his … particular patois, I am listening to a tape of the real Jim Williams talk with the real Danny Hansford, courtesy of the Metabook version of “The Book.”

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App, Anyone?

The Book’s gracious author, John Berendt, received a hero’s homecoming last night at the Jepson Center for the Arts, where the Metabook edition was released worldwide. With the Jepson filled to capacity, a line of anxious patrons two-deep snaked down York Street, missing the big reveal of Metabook creator Benjamin Alfonsi’s new app technology—an iPad/iPhone download ($9.99) that brings the pages of John Berendt’s record-breaking bestseller back to life with a smorgasbord of features not available in the heady days of traditional publishing. That Midnight is the first release from Metabook shows the staying power of Berendt’s account of the city.

With the app, you can read an e-version of the book, or access a dramatic reading of it with Laverne Cox (Orange is the New Black) portraying The Lady Chablis. There are “Where Are They Now?” updates for all the real-life characters who propel the salacious story of Savannah’s secrets and Williams’ four murder trials forward. You can take a 360-degree view of the Garden, send e-postcards from Bonaventure Cemetery’s eerie statues, listen to playwright Alfred Uhry discuss adapting Midnight into a stage-bound musical, and delve into case files that include actual crime scene photos and the aforementioned recordings of phone calls and interviews with Williams.

Photo by Wilson Kidde
Photo by Wilson Kidde

Then and Now

Back when Random House published Midnight in 1994, Berendt insisted that there be no photographs included. As a former editor at Esquire, he had cut his authorial chops among the New Journalists, and he wanted the immersive non-fiction book to read like a novel.

“It was a poor city, then,” reflects Berendt of the Savannah he encountered in the early 1980s, before The Book was even a twinkle in his eye. Broughton Street was largely boarded up. The old Armory building on Bull Street showed only the first blush of SCAD’s potential aesthetic impact on the Historic Landmark District. And, much of the downtown suffered from blight, where few of the grand old townhomes and warehouses had seen a restorer’s paint brush.

“There were only, maybe, 3 million tourists a year at that time,” Berendt surmises from cozier and quieter confines within the Jepson. “What is it now?”

Thirteen million.

He raises his eyebrows and takes a deep breath.

And just as Berendt’s book changed Savannah, the intervening decades have upended how we tell stories and how readers read, so it seemed the right time to expand Midnight’s universe.

“Non-fiction, creative non-fiction, is especially well-suited to this technology,” says Berendt.

This technology allows us to see and hear the things the author did as he researched what would become his freakishly phenomenal success. It also brings a greater poignancy to the narrative.

The crime scene photos show Hansford’s bloody hand, and you realize how very young he really was at the time of his death. And his voice on the phone—dazed and confused, but hopeful—as he discusses building a new life in Hollywood, Florida, speaks to a life unrealized. Williams’ voice, in turn, is animated, fatherly, compassionate. It makes you wonder even more what really happened on that night in Savannah that brought them to blows.

No matter how many times we go back and re-read Midnight, that is something we will never truly know.

For more from the Garden, read:

A Lady After Midnight about The Lady Chablis

Sonny with a Chance of Midnight about Sonny Seiler

 

 

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