John Berendt's 'Angels': Defying the Sophomore Jinx

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Tuesday, November 29, 2005; 5:04 PM

Of all the books I've read this year, of all the illustrated books I've seen, none did I await more eagerly than John Berendt's ,The City of Falling Angels.

Berendt, 65, a veteran journalist and former editor of New York Magazine, achieved huge fame -- not to mention considerable financial gain -- with his first book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, his wonderfully over-the-top yet meticulously reported tale of love, greed, envy, lust -- and ultimately homicide -- in Savannah, Georgia.

That book took up long-term residence on the bestseller lists in 1995 and Clint Eastwood bought the movie rights to it. Kevin Spacey and John Cusack, to name but two great actors involved, starred in the 1997 film -- which itself got great notices.

That kind of success, Berendt admits, not only was gratifying, it was lucrative enough to buy him the luxury of time: the better part of a decade to figure out how he would follow his first book, and avoid the Sophomore Jinx for writers: the almost inevitable letdown that seems to attend any new and spectacularly successful author's second attempt to write both a good and popular book.

Ten years is a long time between drinks -- or books. But with Berendt it was worth it. In The City of Falling Angels, John Berendt has captured the peculiar magic -- and occasional alchemy -- that is Venice: the most beautiful city in the world, whose proud residents sometimes feel as if they are living in an opera set, and who at regular intervals have had to suffer the twin tragedies of fire and flood in their fragile, magnificent setting.

It was natural for Berendt's book to appeal to me. After all, it turns out that my wife and I had been treading the same ground as he--and at almost exactly the same time--as we sought to document in words and photographs Venice in winter, when the "most serene republic" as it once had been called, reclaims itself each year as a living and breathing city, not a tourist-choked cultural theme park.

In talking with Berendt about the way he works, what struck me were the similarities between written and photographic documentary reporting: how the good photographer and the good writer go about doing the spadework that produces something worthwhile. In either case, there is no substitute for being there, no substitute for taking one's own blessed time to immerse oneself in the subject. No substitute for letting time and circumstance wash over you and produce the odd juxtapositions and remarkable coincidences that can inspire an almost-novelistic-at-times visual or written narrative.

Which is why I am using this space right before the holidays to tout a book that contains no pictures at all save John's author photo.

Read The City of Falling Angels bearing in mind what I've just said, and what John says below, and you not only will enjoy one hell of a read, you will become a better photographer.

"I looked into several stories that came my way [after Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil] but they didn't pan out to my satisfaction," Berendt told me, "so I became methodical: 'OK, what worked in the first book? Generally speaking [it was] place, characters and the story...."

"So alright, what other place is as magical as Savannah but very different?

And as it happened I knew Venice from having been there a dozen times. I had an idea about [what it was like.] And so I thought it wouldn't hurt just to go and look. So I made arrangements to go Venice. It happened to be in the winter because that's when I wanted to go; I didn't want to be bothered with other tourists...."

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