Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Summer afternoon rereading

Ron and I believe in rereading books. There are books we like to immerse ourselves in seasonally, or every few years, or just once more. Why else would we own books? One of the books I like to reread is John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. We own a hardback copy of it, an old cassette version of the book on tape, which is what I just listened to in the car, and a DVD of the movie. When his newer book came out, The City of Falling Angels, I read it, and it was okay. But it doesn't have what draws me back to Midnight. I like the title, and the idea that whether something is good or evil can be decided by when it happens. This seems quintessentially southern to me. Southerners have fun alternating being mean and being nice, and blurring the line so you're less able to tell the difference.

Some of the kindest southerners I know have the sharpest tongues. One time I was listening to Ron's grandmother as she fixed lunch and went on and on about who was related to who else, and she unexpectedly finished up with "but, you know, he has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel." Then she turned around, put something on the table, and gave me a big smile. If you grow up in a southern family, the people around you can skew your sense of what is normal, and maybe what you can get away with. Think of William Faulker's A Rose for Emily or Flannery O'Connor's Why I Live at the P.O. Think of my parents, who enjoy my family and vacation with us at least every other year, but who have never come to a concert or a play my children are in, while they attended my seven-year-old niece's first piano recital this May and immediately offered her their grand piano.

When I was a teenager, I invented a game called "dead body." My friends would take me to a dark corner somewhere and dump me out of the car. I would lie there perfectly still, listening for any comments. Although we usually picked a place where someone could see the "body," few people evidenced much concern about what they'd just seen. My adolescent sense of the absurd was satisfied by the apparent lack of reaction from bystanders. Well, my adult sense of the absurd is always satisfied by reading about the Lady Chablis, the black drag queen who delights in shaking people up and seeing what happens. One of my favorites of her antics is when she convinces her white boyfriend's parents that she's pregnant, and they give her some money to pay for an abortion:

Chablis clapped her hands. "I took the money them white folks gave us to murder their unborn grandchild, and I bought that color TV sittin' over there and that videocassette player too. And with what was left over, I went out and got me the raunchiest little sequined dress I could find, so in case they ever do find out who I am, I can shake my ass in their face and tell them 'thanks from the bottom of our interracial baby's dead little heart!'"

I like all the characters, from Luther Driggers, who takes flies out on pieces of string, tries to make glow-in-the-dark goldfish, and makes people nervous by talking about putting poison in the water supply, to Joe Odom, who gives "historical" tours of every house he finds to squat in, whether it's historical or not. And, of course, I like the story of how the police came in and had a party in Jim Williams' fancy house on the way to arresting him for murder, and then they all got on the stand and swore they'd followed police procedure. Plus his story has a bang-up ending, what with the voodoo queen who reveals his apparent lack of feeling for the boy who died and the way he dies himself, at the end of the book.

The preface to my book on tape adds to all the absurdity by revealing that John Berendt first went to Savannah because he noticed that the price of an airline ticket to that city was the same as the price of a fancy dinner in downtown Manhattan.

Rereading the stories in this book is as fun as sitting around on the cushioned glider swing on my great-aunt's shady screened-in porch in Jonesboro, Arkansas, listening to the older folks tell about the doings of their friends and relatives. It doesn't matter if you've heard the stories before. Everybody's still gonna laugh and slap their knees for a while, and then they'll gather themselves up slowly and a few of them will turn on lights and notice where the kids have gone and a few will make their way back to the kitchen to bring out some supper.

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