John Berendt’s "The City of Falling Angels"

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I thought John Berendt’s first book, Midnight in the Garden of Eden, was interesting, but I never quite understood why it was such a big deal. It did have several things going for it. The setting, the characters, the plot. Savannah, GA, is a seemingly imaginary place. It seems to represent, to many, the best of the Historical South. Families live there for generations. Land and houses stay in the family. The people are sophisticated, yet a little naughty. They have lots of parties and drink lots of bourbon.

Berendt dispelled with some of those images in Midnight. We got to see the seedy side of the town. We got to know people who weren’t born wealthy. We got to know the people that Savannah’d rather us not see: the African Americans who haven’t been able to penetrate an economic world where money seems to stay within a select group of families; the cross-dresser who charms all the men in town with his sweet, southern accent; the young man who prostituted himself to the rich men and women of the city; the crazy man walking around town square. We also got to know part of the history that we don’t know much about: for instance, the religious practices that slaves brought with them from Africa that are still practiced in some ways today.

Then there was the plot. A murder in a rich man’s home! A yankee reporter coming to town and getting to know the people, and despite himself, starting to like the people as more than just a circus show. There were parties at mansions, parties in bars, parties in the back alleys, parties in cemeteries. There was gossip and backbiting and heartbreak and fun. All of this was interesting, but it made for a fascinating book because it was held together by the story of a murder. It wasn’t just a book about an interesting town with interesting people who share an interesting past. It was a story that included all of those things.

Berendt’s new book, The City of Falling Angels, was begun shortly after he finished Midnight. Just as the first book began out of his visiting a place a few times and falling in love with it, so this one begins. He’s been to Venice a few times and thinks it holds the same type of intrigue as Savannah. And what do you know, a huge event happens just as he’s thinking of writing the book. He has the setting. You know there have to be some characters with history in a town like Venice. And now, he has the story to be the backbone of the book.

The problem is, well, the story Berendt tells isn’t all that interesting. The huge event, the backbone, is the burning of the city’s opera-house. This is a big event, and I’m not mocking the event in any way. I think it’s hard for me to understand what such a place means to a city like Venice. That isn’t my problem. My problem is what Berendt does with this event. Which is pretty much nothing.

It’s unfair to criticize a book because it’s not the book I wish the author had written, and that’s not what I intend to do. When I read the book, I wasn’t wanting, or even expecting, another Midnight. Even when Berendt early on tips readers off that he is more or less trying to write a Venetian version of his first book, I still didn’t expect it to follow the same sort of trajectory Midnight did. But I think the things that made Midnight interesting are important in understanding why City is not. Berendt is trying to do the same thing, but he didn’t pay attention to the recipe that led to success the first time around.

Berendt is well-read on classic books set in Venice: Wings of a Dove, Death in Venice, Across the River and Into the Trees. There seems to be something missing in those novels, Berendt thinks. They lack a Venetian perspective. They are all written from the standpoint of an outsider visiting or Venice: “The main characters in all these stories…were niether Venetians nor resident expatriats. They were transients. My view of Venice would focus on people who, for the most part, lived there.” This was when I got excited. The story of a city told through the story of the people living in the city. I love Venice and was eager to find out what Venetians are like.

I hope for Venice’s sake, Berendt didn’t capture the essence in the city. He talks to some very interesting people. They are smart, sophisticated, naughty, gossippy, have wonderful histories, and have a love for their city that is enviable. The problem is, Berendt only seems interested in the very rich citizens of Venice, the people with names. Midnight’s most redeeming quality seemed to be the interactions between the rich and the poor, the religious and the athiests, the cross-dressers and the stuffy old men. City has no such interactions. It’s the rich and the people with names, but apparently, there aren’t any other citizens worthy of talking to or about.

And then there’s the story-line that is supposed to be the centerpiece, the story that is supposed to hold everything together. It isn’t all that compelling. It has a nice history, and Berendt does try to add some controversy to the story, what with the corrupt nature of Venetian politics. What he doesn’t do is shed any new light on the city of Venice. He doesn’t do what he wants to do — show readers what it’s like to live in Venice. He provides a decent, if narrow, history, and we do meet some interesting people. Yet, I think readers will have a hard time imagining what it’s actually like to live in Venice — unless, of course, the reader has a few million dollars of disposable income to spend on an apartment with a big garden each year.

I’m not a fan of sequels, but sometimes they work, especially when they have an interesting subject (like Venice — how can you mess up Venice?). I just wish Berendt wouldn’t have tried to recreate the same once-in-a-lifetime events and places and characters he had converging in Savannah in the early 1990s onto a different place and time and on different characters. Rather than letting the events lead him, as he did in Midnight, he tries to create events in Venice. This leads to a forced feeling in the book, like it didn’t come naturally or easily or even enjoyably. Which leads to a disappointing book.

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One Response to “John Berendt’s "The City of Falling Angels"”

  1. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Nicely done, Mikey. I’d never really thought of it before, but I guess Savannah is — or wants to be — a very genteel version of New Orleans, with cotillions and their highly symbolic and stylized sexuality in place of Mardi Gras and its very direct and honest variety.

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