John Berendt's The City of Falling Angels bears a striking resemblance to a certain 1994 nonfiction debut you might have heard of: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Writing about Venice this time around, Berendt reprises so many elements from his runaway bestseller which sold 2.5 million hardcover copies and spent a record four years on the New York Times bestseller list that one might suspect him of pandering to his worldwide following. Of course, had the author truly intended to cash in on his success, he certainly wouldn't have waited a decade to do so; instead, we would have been inundated long ago with the likes of Dawn at a Strip Club on Bourbon Street, Snack Time at the Varsity Drive-In in Atlanta and Twilight at a Convenience Store in Paramus.
Easygoing and gregarious during a conversation from his home in Manhattan, Berendt fills us in on the decade it took him to steep in the atmosphere of Venice and commit what he'd learned to paper. The steeping took more than four years living in Venice 30 percent of the time; the writing dragged on for another five.
"I have to experience them," he admits of his favored locales. "It's not that I'm slow-witted, although maybe I am, but it takes me a while to get into it, to understand the contours of the story and to feel what is to be felt. Then again, when I write, I am a torturously slow writer. What I do is I write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and I don't move on to the next paragraph until I'm reasonably happy with the first one, then when I reach the end of a chapter, I go back and look at the whole thing over again." After completing his media tours for Midnight, an afterglow that lasted two full years, Berendt set about in earnest to find a worthy follow-up project. "I looked at a couple of stories that didn't pan out, so I backed up a little bit and said, let's look at the elements that worked in the first book: number one, remarkable characters; number two: a marvelous sense of place. Savannah was this wonderful, magical place, and I thought, what other place is so terrific? And I thought immediately of Venice." Over the years, Berendt had become quite familiar with Venice. What he could not have foreseen was that three days before his arrival, the famed Fenice (feh-NEE-chay) Opera House would burn to the ground, providing the third element in the equation a true-life mystery to drive the narrative.
Just as Midnight involved the interplay of zany Savannah locals set against the backdrop of a scandalous midnight shooting and subsequent trial, The City of Falling Angels explores equally colorful Venetians as they react to the loss and rebuilding of the city's last opera house, and a trial of the torch men that could only happen in Italy. From the opening line ("Everyone in Venice is acting"), it's clear that Berendt, like Shakespeare, views the world as a stage. The cavalcade of characters that pour forth from these pages is truly impressive Ezra Pound's mistress Olga; the Rat Man who shreds plastic into his bait to simulate the flavor of fast food; special-ops pigeon exterminators; a sleepwalker who dresses in uniforms; a master glassblower who takes inspiration from the Fenice blaze; and sordid and sundry expats who love a place they'll never call home. Life's rich pageant, served with prosciutto, formaggio e prosecco.
If at times these characters seem tangential to the plot, it's by design. As in Midnight, the slow workings of the wheels of justice ultimately give way to the far more interesting eccentricities of the bit players.
"I wasn't really writing about Venice so much as the people who live there," Berendt says. "Maybe it has reached the point where you can't make too many new observations about Venice, but people never wear out; there are always new people, new characters, new stories. I knew I was going to have a fresh look at Venice." Berendt, a cum laude Harvard graduate, already had a successful career behind him as an editor with Esquire and New York magazine when he jumped into book-length nonfiction with Midnight. "I noticed that all my magazine pieces were thrown away in a month or two because that's what you do with magazines, so I've got nothing to show for this. That was really my motivation for writing the book; I wanted to have a calling card when I meet somebody," he recalls.
Throughout the '60s and '70s, he worked with the best of the New Journalists Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Gay Talese and learned from them how to use fiction techniques to create hyper-real nonfiction. "I really just thought that's the only way to write nonfiction," he says. "Whenever I've written nonfiction, I've taken that approach because it came naturally to me." Given that Berendt's favorite fiction writers included Southern literary heroes Flannery O'Connor, Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, it was perhaps preordained that this Syracuse, New York, native would craft the bona fide Southern classic of New Journalism in Midnight.
Berendt is well prepared to parry the inevitable question he'll be peppered with as he circles the globe to promote his second book: when will we see a third? "I say to readers, you've got a lot of other things that you should be reading. I'll bring out a book when I'm ready. You don't really need my book, but if you're going to read my next book, I would think you would want it to be the best I can do, so you're just going to have to wait." Jay MacDonald writes from Oxford, Mississippi.