“John B McLemore lives in Shittown Alabama.” That was the subject line of an email that Brian Reed, a producer for the radio show This American Life, received in 2012. John B introduced himself. He talked about his shit town (known more widely as Woodstock, Alabama). He asked Reed to help him solve a murder.
Like millions of other people, I spent the past few days falling headfirst into S-Town, the podcast that emerged from years of reporting by Reed, all sparked by this missive. I’m going to warn you now, if you have not yet listened to S-Town, this post contains spoilers as to the content of the podcast. So please, do yourself a favor, and go spend a few hours journeying through its seven chapters now. I’ll wait.
The podcast was produced by This American Life and Serial, Sarah Koenig’s true crime wunderkind. I was a huge fan of Serial, so when this new show was billed as an outgrowth of that one, a murder mystery cut from the same cloth, I was intrigued. The actual show would turn out to be so much more.
S-Town is a murder mystery, it’s true. But not of the one the previews introduce. It is also an investigation, an autopsy, a celebration of a life cut short. John B killed himself, you see, a few years into his correspondence with Brian. And what began with one death — that of a local kid, whose murder John believed to have been committed by the son of a local lumber scion and subsequently covered up, and which turned out not to have happened at all — turns into a deep examination of another. The podcast traces the aftermath of John’s death: the battle over his estate, the feud between his relatives and friends, the aftershocks that ripple through his community and, more slowly, through his spiderweb of friends. More importantly, it grapples with who John was and the life that he lived, restoring clocks and rescuing puppies, caring for his mama and seeking human connection, building mazes and inhaling mercury and loving and losing and worrying and hating Shittown.
The podcast has been described in several reviews as Southern Gothic, and I believe the label is a fitting one. Wikipedia, the internet’s number one source for all cursory knowledge, describes the term: “Common themes in Southern Gothic literature include deeply flawed, disturbing or eccentric characters who may or may not dabble in hoodoo, ambivalent gender roles, decayed or derelict settings, grotesque situations, and other sinister events relating to or stemming from poverty, alienation, crime, or violence.” Its characters, “madness, decay and despair, continuing pressures of the past upon the present.” S-Town unfolds like a novel — even the episodes are called Chapters, numbered I-VII — weaving through time and space, from interviews to digressions into fire-gilding techniques or climate change. It visits characters mysterious and strange (and yes, definitely eccentric), from John’s friends and family to former professors and fellow horologists, his mama and cousin, proteges and friends. While there is very little hoodoo, there is much exploration of gender roles and ambivalent sexuality, especially when it comes to John himself, who describes himself at different times as various percentages of straight vs. gay. The setting is either lush and verdant or horrifyingly decrepit, depending on whose eyes you see it through. There is poverty and crime, violence in the form of murders that weren’t and suicide and self-mutilation that, heart-breakingly, were. And there is madness here, although whether it arises from the environmental decline of the world or the poverty of rural Alabama or too much mercury or simply bad genes, or all of the above, is anybody’s guess.
But what I think makes S-Town such a vitally Southern story — setting the, well, setting aside — is that its roots are so clearly grounded in the region’s storytelling tradition. The South is rich in lore, a region that can’t shake the shadow of its history and digs deep into its roots, pride mixing with surrender. This tale is one of a town grappling with a complicated history and an ugly present. It’s also the story of a community that comes together, cobbled together from parcels of land and sheer resolve. It’s a saga of families both biological and chosen, of the scars our parents leave on us, of the legacy we leave behind. It’s complicated and messy, and the gears don’t always seem like they’re going to fit. It is exquisitely real.
To be a human being is a lonely thing. We are all, each of us, trapped inside our own minds, starring in a movie of our own making without a ticket to anybody else’s cinema. And we tell ourselves stories, as one of my favorite writers says, in order to live — to feel less alone. The last chapter of S-Town in particular asks a question: “What gives a life meaning?” The question is specific — what did John B think defined a life as worthwhile, and did his own, when he ended it with a swig of cyanide, fit the bill? But it also endlessly broad. What makes a life worth living? What can each of us hope to accomplish with our few precious days on this earth?
I believe we can listen. I believe we can tell our story. And I believe, if we’re lucky, we can help to tell the stories of others, especially those whose voices are often muffled. That’s why I’m a writer. I write because I do not understand, as a way through the darkness. I write to puzzle the knot of my life into something slightly less kinked, and to tell the stories of the folks I meet along my way. We all live in bubbles — whether in hipster corners of Brooklyn or small towns in Alabama — but stories, both journalistic and fictional, help us to see beyond our sphere. And what Brian Reed does so brilliantly here is to follow the witness marks of John B’s life, to reconstruct as best he can what all the gears and pulleys of his mind looked like, and to invite us inside for a spell. In another’s hands, this would have been the story of a crazy dude in a shitty redneck town, who subscribed to conspiracy theories and wasted his resources on obscure projects and died writhing on his front porch. But Reed tells his story with curiosity and respect. He always questions, never assumes. He listens. He looks at every angle. He tries to find the whole, messy truth.
John B McLemore is dead. He died in the same Shittown where he was born and raised, never straying too far beyond its borders. But his life, which at first glance seem small, left a mark on this great wild world that continues to ripple out. And a storyteller named Brian Reed helped, is continuing to help, him do that. To borrow from another of my and Scout’s heritages, it is one of the greatest mitzvahs a person can do. To really listen to someone. To see them. To celebrate them. To tell their story, without reducing any of its complexities or quirks to stereotype or a cheap joke. To make them remembered.