It's been five years since John Berendt's gossipy Savannah exposé, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, first hit the bookstores. And at long last -- more than two million hardcovers and a major motion picture later -- Vintage has announced (Book News, Mar. 22) that on July 6 Midnight will finally be released in paperback.

But now word is out that literary lightning has struck Savannah again.

Since its release by Savannah-based publisher Frederic Beil last November, Delirium of the Brave, a debut novel by local 51-year-old podiatrist William C. Harris Jr., has had the historic, smugly aristocratic Southern city twittering over the thinly disguised roman á clef, which lays bare the in-fighting and family skeletons of the Irish Catholic-flavored city's political and social dynasties. The book is topping local bestseller lists and has even attracted Hollywood interest. Publisher Beil would not reveal actual print numbers, but said that Delirium of the Brave is set to go into its fourth printing.

"I'm astonished that someone who is not a trained writer can write so well," said local bookseller Esther Shaver, who runs E Shaver Bookseller. She has held several signings for Harris and estimates her sales of Delirium of the Brave have exceeded several hundred copies.

"I remember the stir when Midnight was first released, but I don't recall my early sales being much bigger than this," said Regina Odom, owner of the local Regina's Books and Cards. She has sold about 500 copies of Delirium of the Brave to date.

To those who know his story, the metaphoric use of lightning to describe Harris's success is appropriate. As a 19-year-old college student working part-time as an emergency medical technician, Harris was electrocuted when he stepped on a downed power line during a violent thunderstorm. The accident resulted in both his legs being amputated.

Harris persevered to complete his college and medical education; today he has a busy medical practice and walks using prostheses, without the aid of a cane.

Unlike Berendt's Midnight, which centers around contemporary, inner city Savannah, Delirium of the Brave is entwined around the legend of a lost treasure on tiny Raccoon Island -- one of a maze of barrier islands that dot the coastal waterways around the city. At the novel's beginning, a young Confederate officer and his devoted slave companion bury a small chest of family valuables to keep them from Yankee looters. Shortly thereafter, both men are killed by a Yankee gunboat, taking their secret to the grave. As the novel's early pages move quickly through post-Civil War generations of old Savannah families into the post-Depression era prior to the outbreak of World War II, protagonist John Morgan Hartman is introduced. Hartman is a fiery young renegade journalist on the lam from a newsroom fistfight that ended his job at the Chattanooga Times. From that point on, Hartman and his namesake son are central to the plot.

Harris readily admits that the book presents fictionalized versions of a number of prominent family histories. "I grew up hearing all the secrets," confided the son of a former Savannah newspaperman who also served as local sheriff. He is adamant, however, when it comes down to naming names. "Any of the locals who read my novel will readily understand why I'm not betraying the identities of the actual models for these characters."

Not only do the locals understand, they're giving Harris perhaps the ultimate accolade. "I'm not taking anything away from Mr. Berendt," said bookseller Odom, "but I personally believe that Dr. Harris's Delirium of the Brave catches a lot more of the romance and intrigue that are the real heart of Savannah."

Robertson is founding director of the Third Annual Celebration of Writing in the Lowcountry in Beaufort, S.C., and a frequent contributor to PW.