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White Lies

Writer Bill Barich tells the truth about 'Midnight in the Garden ...'

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he meets globetrotting author Bill Barich to take in the offbeat crime-drama Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

The bar is nearly deserted, in direct contrast to the teeming parade of eccentric humanity just outside the door on San Francisco's busy Market Street. "So," I ask my guest, author and journalist Bill Barich, "have you ever broken into a morgue while working on a story?"

It is a reference to the film we've just seen, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil--director Clint Eastwood's distressingly flat translation of the best-selling John Berendt non-fiction potboiler--in which an eager young journalist (John Cusack) finds himself losing all professional objectivity and ethical restraint while covering a murder trial in languorous Savannah, Ga.

Having befriended the defendant, a rich, smooth-talking antiques dealer (Kevin Spacey) accused of killing his bad-tempered male lover, the reporter goes to great lengths to uncover the truth. At one point he does invade the city morgue, aided by the local drag queen (the Lady Chablis, playing herself) and a smitten southern belle (Alison Eastwood).

"I've never broken into a morgue," Barich admits with a laugh. "And I never wound up with the girl at the end, either. That was even more preposterous."

Barich, a former writer for The New Yorker, has made a name for himself as a keen-eyed chronicler of the offbeat, an observer of those cultures that exist beneath the radar of most people's gaze. His books include Laughing in the Hills, a look into the world of horseracing; and Big Dreams--a powerful, engaging tale of the author's own journey of self-exploration while traversing California. He recently covered a murder trial of his own for Outside Magazine, reporting the bizarre events surrounding a rich white couple accused of murdering their black boatman while vacationing in the Caribbean.

"The thing that the movie did get right," he says, "was that when you get into a situation like that, the truth is very slippery. And everyone has something at stake, so you have to take every story with a grain of salt."

"And try to remain as objective as possible," I suggest.

Barich rolls his eyes.

"There is no objectivity," he replies matter-of-factly. "There's truthfulness, but that's not the same thing. I remember reading a wonderful interview with the director Werner Herzog where he was criticized because his movie was so biased. And he said, 'I'm sick of this myth of objectivity! Of course it's biased. That's what I wanted it to be!' It's a base canard that any kind of objectivity exists."

Hmmm. That just happens to be a canard I'm rather fond of.

"But as a journalist," I respond, "isn't there an attempt to create at least a semblance of objectivity?"

"Well, I gave up on it long ago," Barich laughs. "I do think you want fairness. The people you come across while you're working a story really just want to be treated fairly, honestly, aboveboard. And they'll even take a knock, if they deserve it. They may not like what you say but they will at least respect you.

"People are ready for the truth," he grins. "Though I prefer what the Austrian writer Thomas Berendhart used to call it, 'The truth-content of a lie.' He used to say that the truth-content of his lies was very high."

"I've heard that when Midnight was published," I relate, "Berendt returned to Savannah for book signings, and he was treated like a hero."

"Sure, and that book was generally unflattering," Barich nods. "It painted Savannah as a creepy and ghoulish place. I think part of what's going on is that Berendt published what people had saying in the streets about this wealthy guy and his secret life. There's a kind of titillation in a writer saying in public what everyone is saying in private."

"And everyone was eager to see if their name had been mentioned," I add.

"Of course," Barich laughs. "When my racetrack book came out, I was told by some of the stores that they couldn't believe the people that were coming into the bookstore, grooms and jockeys who'd never read a book in their lives. And of course they'd not have my name right, and they'd have the title wrong ... but they'd buy six copies.

"At the cash register, having no idea what I'd written, they'd say, 'Hey, I'm in this book.'"

He tells about receiving a message from a woman after he'd been interviewed on a radio program. "I called her, and it turned out that she was the daughter of a guy who'd been the mayor in a little desert town way down near Palm Springs. This guy is mentioned in Big Dreams, but only in one sentence. And this woman said that she had gone out--her father had died since the book came out--and bought like 18 copies of the book to give to all her nephews. It was an emotional connection. But also it's posterity.

"He will always be in that book as long as that book is around. The grandkids can turn to page 432, and there he is," Barich smiles, slapping the table gently. "Forever the mayor."

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From the Nov. 26-Dec. 3, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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