The Atlantic has called S-Town “A well-crafted monument to empathy” and I suspect no other review will express that sentiment quite so well. The new podcast series is startling lovely, an Alabama fairy tale crossed with a sad country song crossed with a season of Rectify. Like with that show, the promise of a murder mystery is what will draw the audience in, then will quickly becomes the least important thing about it. This podcast is the story of a man named John B. McLemore and a reporter named Brian Reed’s attempt to understand John’s strange and extraordinary life. John is an antique clock restorer, climate change-obsessed fanatic, doomsday soothsayer, and genius horticulturalist. He is a lonely and singular human who contacted a reporter at This American Life because he believed that a murder was going unpunished in his small Alabama town. That is where the story begins, but there are no straight lines here, and few answers.
The first season of Serial really is an excellent murder mystery and anything with the Serial name attached to it (including the second season of Serial) is going to stir up some expectations. S-Town is protean, though, and what starts as a true-crime teaser quickly morphs into a story with as many possible courses as John’s maze, some of which lead nowhere at all.
John gives Brian three short stories to read the first time they meet in person: William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace,” and something by Shirley Jackson. Later, we learn that John was also obsessed with Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain.” There’s a quality these stories share, a healthy does of small-town claustrophobia and homespun folktale that further uncouples the two layers of John’s story. First there are the fairytale elements to John’s life and to this story. John restores antique clocks and potters around like an alchemist, even turning a dime into gold at one point. He has built an intricate hedge maze on his 100+ acre property and his antique farmhouse is filled with odd treasures. There is, I kid you not, an element to this story that will even involve a literal hunt for buried gold treasure. With John B. McLemore, the realm of possibility stretches as far as the eye can see.
Then there is the earth-bound John B. McLemore. He is a small-town Alabaman with an accent to match, occasionally racist and sexist, and at one point he pees in a sink during a phone call. He also self-describes as “queer,” dedicates a significant portion of his time to educating himself about climate change, and is as liberal as any coastal elite you’ll encounter in a given day. Many have noted, and rightly so, that the seeming contradictions in John’s character have been brought sharply into focus by the election of Donald Trump and said coastal elite’s desire to understand the white male small town voter. Right there is where Brian Reed and his team could have made some serious errors. It would be easy to give us John the showman, the strange Alabaman horologist and horticulturalist, half magician half man. Or it would have been easy to give us John the outlier- perhaps predisposed by birth and company to vote Trump and deny climate change to the ending of the earth, yet somehow “enlightened.” Look at the strange thing we found in Alabama! Instead, we get the human man John B. McLemore.
It helps that Brian Reed loves this man, loves his strangeness and his wit and his genius as well as his failings and his fears. He does not give us a caricature of John, or of any of the other characters that weave in and out of this story. He lets them tell their stories and he listens to them, so we listen to them too. Of course there is a discussion happening right now that should be happening right now concerning whether or not a podcast like this should have ever been made. It is unlikely we would kick up much of a fuss if Brian Reed had fictionalized John B. (although how one further fictionalizes a man like John is beyond me) and written a novel instead of creating a podcast. But this is the medium he chose to create his art in and that choice is a part of why it is so good. Our voyeurism is inescapable, as is the dissonance that results from talking about real people with the same avidity as we talk about the characters on Big Little Lies. John’s life is literature now, and I don’t know if he intended that, or if maybe this is why we often reach for the mediating shade of fictionalization.
At one point John says life is “tedious and brief,” but his story is neither. The episodes were released all at once- seven hours of audio that we are implicitly encouraged to binge. You should listen to them close together in order to fully immerse yourself in the gothic strangeness that is another person’s life. Doing it that way hurtles you forward through the maze-like story (this man’s life is metaphor) and drops you neatly in the same place we all ended at the end of Seasons one and two of Serial– at the uneasy understanding that human beings are the mysteries and answers are incomplete, if they come at all. But the journey through their stories is, unsurprisingly, the worthier part.