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Venice's characters make a splash in 'Angels'

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John Berendt's first blockbuster, 1994's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, unleashed an adoring horde of tourists upon the book's locale, Savannah, Ga. Today, Berendt publishes The City of Falling Angels, a profile of Venice.

The inevitable question: Could the second book possibly equal the first? Well, this reader loved the former but never made time to visit Savannah. But having read Angels, I cannot stop haunting travel websites in search of cheap fares to Italy. Angels is that good.

It would be wrong to pigeonhole Berendt as a "travel writer." He is that and much more. In this work of non-fiction, he brilliantly describes Venice's buildings, its sunlight, its atmosphere, its canals. Clearly, he has taken years to research, write and, indeed, live in the cities he describes. As a result, his books display an unmistakable depth.

In an odd way, Berendt proves himself to be a masterful writer because of what he leaves out. A title about the centuries-old city of Venice could be a real tree-killer of the first magnitude. Instead, Berendt crafts a lean and elegant narrative.

He hangs Angels on a suspicious fire that destroyed Venice's beautiful opera house on Jan. 29, 1996. This device allows Berendt to explore topics such as the city's history, Italy's cultural fecundity, the famously snarled bureaucracy, the role of the Mafia and Venice's brilliant artisans.

But none of that explains why Berendt is that rare writer devoured by millions. In his books, it's the people.

First in Savannah and now in Venice, Berendt introduces characters at every stratum of society. I remember bits of information about the architecture of Savannah, but I will never forget Midnight's outspoken drag queen, The Lady Chablis.

The Venetians, those by birth and those by choice, are every bit as eccentric, elegant, weird and obsessed as the folks in Savannah. And because Berendt writes most of all about people, all their page-turning baggage comes along: love, hate, greed, envy, revenge, betrayal.

Among the skeins that Berendt weaves to create his tapestry: the savage infighting that eventually fractures a high-society charity devoted to saving Venice; the fate of a beautiful, historic palazzo (palace) inherited by three siblings; the spirit of Carnival; and the criminal investigation into the opera house fire.

One of the most Byzantine subplots involves a literary/financial scandal right out of a Henry James novel. At the center is the dead poet Ezra Pound, his mistress of half a century, Olga Rudge, and their love child.

Isolated, beautiful, decadent, often seen as doomed by the rising waters that surround it, Venice has bewitched writers for centuries. Clearly under its spell, Berendt skillfully shares the city's magic in his splendid new book.

Interview with John Berendt, 5D

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