Several years ago, Publisher's Weekly reported that author John Berendt had single-handedly boosted tourism in Savannah, Ga., by 46 percent, all thanks to his 1994 blockbuster, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.
"The figure was actually higher than that," says the 65-year-old author today, sitting in his immaculate Manhattan townhouse. Not one for false modesty, Berendt sounds like he might want royalties on the gift-shop purchases too.
If Berendt is looking to bring tourists to a new city, he has certainly chosen a more ambitious destination. City of Falling Angels, his 10-years-in-the-waiting new book doesn't focus on Charleston's southern sister city -- or even on another American backwater -- but on the world's ultimate holiday destination: Venice.
And the crime at hand is no freak murder, but the fire which destroyed the city's storied opera house, La Fenice.
Happily, Berendt proves he is no one-book wonder. City of Falling Angels doesn't just get to the bottom of this event, it holds a roman candle to Venetian society -- that elusive, shadowy world -- illuminating all its secret alleyways.
Berendt first arrived in Venice in January of 1996, just three days after the fire, and from the book's very beginning he sets out to create a new menagerie of curious characters.
There's a master glassblower, whose son has betrayed him by starting his own glassblowing company. Our sympathies lie with the father until we learn that he, too, betrayed his father to strike out on his own.
Another family drama ignites on the Grand Canal, where a clan of American expatriates fight over whether they ought to sell the first floor of their palace, a family home for four generations.
Squabbling between family lines appears to be the way of life in Venice, and Berendt often found himself smack in the middle. Venetians, it seems, are always on the lookout for a sympathetic ear.
"I wasn't practically worried about being lied to all the time," says Berendt. But occasionally he did have to double and triple check what he was being told.
"One guy said one of his ancestors saved Christianity by defeating the Turks. Well, one of them did, but the other one cut and ran."
Unraveling this tangled yarn of fables and half-truths came naturally to Berendt, who spent more than a decade marinating in the contradictions of the deep South. The "negative capability" necessary for understanding our region seems to have come naturally to him.
Shortly after graduating from Harvard University, Berendt became a journalist, editing and reporting for Esquire until the late 1960s. He made a brief detour into television in the '70s, as a producer for the David Frost and Dick Cavett shows. One of his jobs was to prepare questions for the nighttime guests.
Interviewing Berendt, then, is like dancing with a woman who won't let you lead. He anticipates the direction of questioning and often skips to the ultimate answer, impatient with the steps in between. Leading comments do not work on him. His personal life remains opaque.
That, in the end, is probably how he'd like it. For even though Berendt came of age during the day of celebrity journalists like Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson, he has remained decidedly old-school in his use of the first person.
As in Midnight, Berendt narrates the book throughout in a detached first person voice, always reserving judgment. The thrust of his prose comes from the author's bemused curiosity, not his identity.
"I have almost no opinions in this book," says Berendt, even now deflecting questions which trawl for opinions. "I am charmed by what I see, or I am surprised by what I see. But it's not a story about me."
A traveler himself, Berendt had been to Venice before and had already read some of the de rigueur books on the city, from the novels of Henry James to the travelogues of Jan Morris. When he began actual research, however, he stumbled on the kind of book he didn't want to write.
"Venetian Dreaming, for example, is about this New York journalist who went to Venice, and it's all about her arrangements," says Berendt. "She rented this palace and the guy gypped her and so on. I suppose this puts you in her shoes, but she is such a bitch. Nobody cares."
So Berendt kept these details invisible, except for when they might capture something unique or essential about the city. Nor does the reader hear much from him (as a narrator) about the progress of the book.
If there is any chicanery to City of Fallen Angels, this is it, for from the moment of his arrival Berendt was reporting.
"I didn't say, hey I'm writing a book, but I'd meet someone and we'd talk and talk and then after 10 or 15 minutes, I'd say, you know that's fascinating. I'm writing a book and I might want to write about that. Can we talk?"
Berendt can speak passable Italian, but one of the reasons this book had such a long gestation was the transcription -- and then translation -- of many interviews, which were done in Italian. Berendt was "terrified" about missing the meaning of a comment.
Berendt holds the American record for most weeks on The New York Times Bestseller list. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil sold nearly three million copies in hardcover and is still selling. The popular film adaptation, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack, was a big box office success. So why not quit while he was ahead?
"One of my friends is Gay Talese," says Berendt, indulging an opportunity to name drop, "and he said, 'Don't ever write another book.'"
But of course Berendt has, and the reason why appears to be that he enjoys what he does. He has an unusual capacity for entering a city and inhabiting its grey spaces. He thrills to portray such places, and in so doing, perhaps likes to say something larger.
"This book has a lot of unresolved mysteries," says Berendt, "but that's life: things don't have easy conclusions."
John Freeman lives in New York.