JOHN BERENDT reading and interviewed by BEN McNALLY October 27, 8 pm, at the Premiere Dance Theatre.
THE CITY OF FALLING ANGELS by John Berendt (Penguin), 415 pages, $36.99 cloth. Rating: NNN
In The City of Falling Angels, John Berendt tries to do for Venice what he did for Savannah, Georgia, in his blockbuster hit Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil. Just as the earlier book began with a murder, this one opens with something almost as compelling: a fire that, in 1996, destroyed the historic La Fenice Opera House and almost destroyed Venice itself.
The cause of the fire is considered arson by some, negligence by others, and there's talk that the Mafia could be connected. But the book is less about the outcome of the investigation as it is the people who inhabit the island, from old world nobles who live in palazzos along the Grand Canal to American expats and various artists, artisans and simple tradespeople.
Berendt - who coincidentally showed up in the city three days after the fire - is a shrewd observer, and when he's describing people and places, there's lots of drama and humour. Particularly entertaining is the portrait of the man who makes his living concocting specialized rat poisons for various cities.
What Berendt lacks here, however, is a compelling villain, someone mysterious and sinister like his first book's Jim Williams. There's also no one as shamelessly self-promoting and outrageous as the Lady Chablis, the drag queen who became a minor celebrity after Midnight's success.
You get the feeling here that the author was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of history and background he had to impart. Nowhere is this clearer than in the virtually unreadable chapter about Ezra Pound, his wife and his mistress.
Perhaps it's the language barrier (a glossary of words and names comes in handy) or the fact that Venetians are a protective, contradictory people, but the book doesn't come to life fully.
Still, travellers wanting the scoop on the real Venice - there's barely a mention of St. Mark's Square - will want to pick this up.