Hippo Manchester
November 3, 2005

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The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt, Penguin Press, 2005, 432 pages

***

The man who wrote “The Book” has penned another. This would be a wholly good thing if I had not developed a love-hate affair with the author over the last few years.

Berendt is a former editor of Esquire magazine and New York Times Magazine. Around about 1985 he started spending a lot of time in Savannah, Ga., and the result was 1994’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil — a nonfiction novel that spent four years on the NYT’s bestseller list and created so much interest in Savannah that locals there dubbed it “The Book.” Tourists flocked to the area, Berendt sold the movie rights, a couple of people he wrote about became famous. Heck, I even considered moving there for a job with the Savannah Morning News. Winners all around, right?

Sort of. See, the book was about a murder, committed by a gay socialite who was almost single-handily bringing downtown Savannah back from the dead. And it was nonfiction, by a journalist — a representative of a career that I hold to a certain set of standards of accuracy.

When it came out that Berendt had changed the timeline of events in the story to make it a better read, I was disappointed. He put the story ahead of the facts and, while it may make a better book, it’s not good journalism. I stopped trusting him.

So I went into The City of Falling Angels, a true crime story set in Venice, Italy, knowing I was going to be entertained and fearing I would be misled.  Berendt is a very capable writer and a master at conveying atmosphere. His narrative style of journalism gives you the bones, meat and spirit of each character, while allowing you to smell the canals and the ashes of the La Fenice Opera House (a victim of arson, hence the mystery).

The City of Falling Angels is a great read and, yes, it did make me want to go to Venice. But does it reflect reality? Early criticism suggests that most of his sources were American ex-pats and others in the “New Venice” and that he missed the true Italy.

I don’t know. I like Berendt’s stories but I don’t trust him.

— Robert Greene