Sept. 27 (Bloomberg) -- After John Berendt's first book, ``Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,'' spent three years on the bestseller lists, the genteel port city of Savannah, Georgia, was overrun by fans of homicidal art restorer Jim Williams and outrageous female impersonator, the Lady Chablis.
Venice, the setting for Berendt's follow-up 11 years later, ``The City of Falling Angels'' (Penguin Press, 412 pages, $25.94) needs another tourist like it needs another pigeon baby. But I shouldn't wonder if tour groups are forming right now in front of the Fenice opera house, which conveniently burned down just days before the New York author arrived in town, casting about for a new topic.
That was in January 1996. The fire almost took down half of the city, which may seem incredible given the fact that Venice is periodically announced as sinking into the sea. But all the canals around the Fenice had been dredged dry for maintenance and the fire burned for seven hours. In the morning, all that was left of the lovely theater, a dream of peach and blue and golden curlicues, was the façade and a sooty fresco of, get this, Dante's Inferno.
Most people Berendt meets believe the fire was set by arsonists perhaps in the service of the Mafia. Berendt begins his own casual inquiry, interviewing witnesses, resident aristocrats, a menagerie of eccentrics and the numerous artists and expatriates.
He befriends the young ambitious prosecutor conducting the official investigation. It turns out that a pair of bumbling electricians set the fire to distract from some costly unfinished work, not expecting the place to burn down. Yet the point of this book isn't to unravel the mystery of the fire, but to ponder the true essence of Venice, a city famous for its theatricality.
Count Girolamo Marcello is Berendt's Virgil: ``To be Venetian, and to know how to live in Venice is an art...In Venice we move delicately and in silence. And with great subtlety. We are a very Byzantine people, and that is certainly not easy to understand.''
Berendt gradually uncovers a web of intriguing tales. There is the director of the Venice Guggenheim and his wife, a creepy pair of social-climbing academics who may have conned Ezra Pound's ancient mistress into giving up her valuable archives. The most perplexing tale concerns the suicide of a beloved homosexual local television commentator and poet, Mario Stefani, which sends his disbelieving friends on a hunt for a killer. They end up uncovering Stefani's sad obsession with a married grocer.
The Italian Rat
As in a Verdi opera, Berendt composes his story to highlight the city's most colorful characters against a vivid backdrop of history, mystery and fantasy. He is an expert at finding room for offbeat secondary characters, the rat poison magnate, for instance, who alters his recipe to suit changing local rat palates. Vexed that Italian rats have started preferring plastic to cheese, he adds granulated plastic to the mix, realizing in a Eureka! moment that plastic is ``the rats' equivalent of fast food.''
The only serious misstep is a tedious blow-by-blow of politicking among two competing patrons of a high-society charity that threatens to undermine multimillion-dollar architectural restorations. The ``he said, she said'' fight is so detailed that it gives the impression Berendt wouldn't take sides and risk offending any new friends.
Early on, Count Marcello advises Berendt to beware: ``Everyone in Venice is acting.'' He continues: ``Sunlight on a canal is reflected up through a window onto the ceiling, then from the ceiling onto a vase, and from the vase onto a glass, or a silver bowl. Which is the real sunlight? Which is the real reflection? What is true? What is not true? The answer is not so simple because the truth can change. I can change. You can change. That is the Venice effect.''
Over eight years, Berendt acclimated enough to capture some of the effervescent truth of Venice. Second books often fail because they are written too quickly to capitalize on success. Taking his time to get to know the city has served Berendt well.