Is ‘S-Town’ art or exploitation? It’s complicated.
Is “S-Town” a freak show for the NPR crowd?
At times you may feel that way, and not without reason. But you will probably feel every emotion under the sun as you listen to this podcast from the makers of “Serial” and “This American Life.”
With all seven chapters released on March 28 rather than in weekly installments, a la the hit “Serial,” “S-Town” (the actual title employs the full s-word) is a curiosity that can quickly turn into a seven-hour aural binge. An investigative story written and narrated by journalist Brian Reed, it is by turns a murder mystery, an unexpected tragedy, a treasure hunt, the tale of a feud, a social portrait, an almost love story, a treatise on time, a civic history, a medical mystery, a darkening psychological character study, and an epiphany of place.
But, yes, “S-Town” has an undeclared rubbernecking streak, and its finely grained tour of an Alabama backwater named Woodstock and the people who live there — including one solitary, wracked soul — at times feels exploitative of a region the show’s creators understand less than well. The timing seems vaguely suspect, too. The recent success of memoirs such as J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” and such nonfiction books as Nancy Isenberg’s “White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America” coexists with countless media articles trying to explain the ascension of Donald Trump by talking to the rural Red Staters who voted for him.
Is this genuine interest in a part of the American populace used to being ignored or mocked, or is it just a passing chattering-class fancy, a form of “redneck chic”? Both, probably. But that sense of remove may also explain the other problem with “S-Town”: that its inquisition into one man’s psychological make-up and his past is fundamentally unfair because it involves permission, and permission, for a variety of complicated and spoiler-related reasons I can’t get into here, has not been granted.
The irony is that “S-Town” still tells its tale with surprising empathy and art. What’s the show about? At first it appears we’re knee-deep in “Serial” true-crime territory, as Reed entertains an invitation from one John B. McLemore to come down to Woodstock and look into the corrupt doings and a possible homicide in the community McLemore calls “[expletive] town.”
But the crime, such as it is, is resolved by Chapter 2, and by then Reed and the listener understand that the greater mystery is McLemore himself. A restorer of old clocks who’s in his early 50s, he’s a Grade-A American eccentric who lives on a remote 124-acre spread with his aged mother, Mary Grace, and 13 or 14 dogs who have their own house on the property. He has built a giant hedge maze that few have seen. His skills with antique timepieces turn out to be the stuff of legend. And he is given to long, blistering, data-studded rants about climate change, the failures of modern culture, and — always — the idiocy of his fellow Woodstockians. He’s a bit like a manic, brainiac version of Jack Nicholson’s small-town lawyer in “Easy Rider.”
It’s those lightning-fast tirades of McLemore’s — hilarious, intelligent, and not a little scary — that draw Reed in over the phone and then down to Woodstock for numerous visits over the years. The journalist convinces us of his genuine friendship with his subject, but the lingering smell of gawkery never entirely goes away.
There are certain developments I don’t want to spoil, particularly a twist at the end of Chapter Two that reorients “S-Town” in a new direction. We come to know other characters in McLemore’s orbit, notably Tyler Goodson, a well-intentioned young screw-up whom the older man has befriended out of paternal affection or maybe something more. Relatives come out of the woodwork, either hungry to find the gold ingots rumored to be stashed on McLemore’s property or out of real concern for the failing Mary Grace.
And because we are in the deep Deep South, the listener is brought close to people who both humanize certain stereotypes and embody them in ways Reed sometimes seems out of his depth in exploring. The reporter hangs out for a few evenings at Black Sheep Ink, a combination biker bar and tattoo parlor run by Goodson and a friend named Bubba. The latter is sociable and openly racist; the local county big shot runs a business called the KKK Lumberyard. Goodson’s Uncle Jimmy, who got a bullet in the head that no one ever bothered to take out, yips in the background of several interview sequences like a street-corner preacher on a bender.
It all feels too Gothic, Flannery O’Connor grotesqueries arranged for our appalled fascination and no less forced for being rooted in reality. That Reed is so clearly an outsider — even his voice sounds well-pressed — is both the limitation of “S-Town” and, by the end, its saving grace.
He’s scrupulously impartial, for one thing, and he has a knack for asking the right questions, such as, “Why did you want the nipple rings?” or, “Has there been a forgery, Tyler?” Like all good journalists, Reed has mastered the art of listening, and the people of Woodstock respond and bloom into three-dimensional colors and shapes as we listen to him listening. He’s an outsider, yes, but one who believes that “understanding another person is a worthwhile thing to do.” The further we go into “S-Town,” the faster the stereotypes melt.
At the center of the maze is McLemore, who, for various reasons, defies easy understanding. There are medical theories floated, sidebars into the arcane practice known as “fire-gilding,” and one chapter devoted to a witness to McLemore’s life that is one of the most quietly moving pieces of radio art I have heard.
But, yes, at more than one point, you may find yourself wondering what on Earth this show is all about. The answer, by the end, seems to be a complex appreciation of one small-town crank who turns out to be a singular human being — indeed, a misunderstood genius. But where’s the line between bringing him to our attention and using him for our entertainment? I’m not sure Reed knows the answer.
At its best, “S-Town” forces us to think about such issues — about how the hunger for narrative that drives our popular culture can lead creators into queasy activities like stalking Richard Simmons or probing the past of a person who isn’t in a position to defend himself. At its easiest, the podcast is seven chapters of provocative red herrings that almost but never quite add up to a place, a people, or a man.
“It’s kind of funny to be lost in something you designed yourself,” McLemore says at one point about the maze he built in the middle of nowhere.
Brian Reed could say the same about his podcast.