The Big Issue : Edition 462
THE BIG ISSUE 4 – 17 JULY 2014 31 CEMETERYPHOTOGRAPHBYRYAN,DJ,1837,VIAWIKIMEDIACOMMONS AFTER MIDNIGHT In town, I told Faries, I’d been warned that he was a “wild man” and I should bring a can of mace. Faries laughed. Sure, he admitted. He did have a lot of parties at his place. And yes, it was true: one of the Oxford American Review editors had nearly fallen out of his tree house while drunk. But Faries himself had been “clean and sober since he was 17 years old”. Still, he said, it was all a matter of perception: a man in his early forties “still not married, no kids, a writer, interesting house, Harley Davidson... cowboy boot collection. So maybe people start to develop their own mythologies about that.” After showing me around his house, we drove down the road to the cemetery. “Well, guess what you’re looking at?” Faries couldn’t have stage- managed it better. The large, roughly cut monument that had made such an impression marked the graves of modernist poet Conrad Aikin’s parents. Both had died on the same day: 27 February 1901. And it was no unhappy accident. Aikin’s father had shot his mother, then himself, when the poet was just 14 years old. Beside that tombstone was another: a stone bench, marking the grave of Aikin himself. And then it struck me. This scene...wasn’t it straight out of Midnight? The bit when author John Berendt (now 74) describes an old lady taking him here to sit and sip martinis, while enjoying the view? “Yeah? I wouldn’t doubt it,” agreed Faries, after a little confusion about exactly which scene I meant. “I’ve done the same thing with, well, another somewhat local writer, George Dawes Green...probably known more for developing, being the creator of The Moth storytelling series... He and I have come here at night. I shouldn’t say, it closes at 5 – but there are ways to get in after 5pm.” LIKE MANY PEOPLE who read Midnight, I’d immediately resolved to visit the historical southern port town brought to life in its pages. The fact that I arrived in Savannah on the 20th anniversary of Berendt’s book was just a happy accident. My journey began a few months earlier. After reading Australian broadcaster John Safran’s self- conscious foray into true crime, Murder in Mississippi, I’d been struck with the references to Berendt’s book – considered both a benchmark and cautionary tale in the pantheon of true crime. So, I decided to pick up a copy. On the surface, Berendt’s book told the tale of local antique dealer Jim Williams who was tried a staggering four times, before being acquitted of the murder of his erratic young lover, Danny Hansford. But the most compelling character was Savannah itself, complete with a cast of delightfully odd denizens: a man who walked an invisible dog, a sassy drag queen, a local introvert who may just poison the whole town... For Berendt, a New Yorker drawn into Savannah’s orbit, the town seemed almost hermetically sealed. And, as he observed, folks in Savannah seemed to pride themselves on their never- changing culture. In the years since ‘the book’ – as some Savannahians refer to it – the town has changed a great deal. And in no small part because of the book’s popularity (as well as the Clint Eastwood directed film made three years after its release). Tourists flocked to visit the moody cemetery, examine the collected antiquities in the beautifully restored Mercer Williams House and marvel at the iconic Bird Girl statue described in the book, and depicted on its cover. (So much so, that the original statue has since been moved from the cemetery to Savannah’s Telfair Museum.) As well as the tourism sparked by Midnight, the growth and influence of SCAD had not only brought a new arts-based vibrancy to the town, but was responsible for restoring nearly a hundred of the local buildings – effectively gentrifying the downtown area. But, although different to the folks Berendt met, the cast of eccentrics seemed undiminished. One thing is certain, if anyone doubts the power of a book, they need only visit Savannah. » Melissa Cranenburgh is associate editor of The Big Issue.