After listening to all seven hours of S-Town, a question mark lingers whether the life of one Alabama man can sustain the longform format. Ultimately, despite a few wobbles along the way, the answer to that is yes.
WARNING: This post contains spoilers about the entire S-Town series.
William Faulkner’s 1930 short story “A Rose for Emily” is referenced early on in Serial and This American Life’s new seven-hours-long, atmosphere-rich binge-podcast S-Town — which could easily be subtitled “A Rose for John B. McLemore.” For those who don’t remember Faulkner’s sad little tale, it recounts the life of a strange, wealthy woman in small town Mississippi who puzzles the local residents all the way up to and beyond her death. In the story’s last paragraphs, the narrator says that after her funeral, a locked door in Emily’s house is kicked open to reveal the mummified remains of a human male lying in a bed. He was Emily’s onetime fiancé, who disappeared decades earlier. And on the pillow next to his skull is a single strand of Emily’s gray hair.
Latter episodes of S-Town conclude with the bittersweet music of the Zombies’ “A Rose for Emily,” and that, of course, like everything else in this haunting, titanic, massively ambitious podcast, is carefully strategized. Perhaps, in fairness, too much so. Fans of This American Life adore the instances when the long-running WBEZ Chicago show devotes a whole hour to just one story. “The House on Loon Lake” is about as perfect an hour of radio that has ever been aired. But even after listening to all seven hours of S-Town, a question mark lingers whether the life of one Alabama man, as peculiar and fascinating as it was, can sustain the longform format. Ultimately, despite a few wobbles along the way, the answer to that is yes.
And good for all of us that Brian Reed, a This American Life producer with the brand’s signature compassion-meets-neurosis, verbal-fry speaking voice, certainly thought so. A few years ago, Reed received an email from the aforementioned John B. McLemore, a revved-up 49-year-old clockmaker, tempting the radio reporter with the promise of an unsolved murder case in Alabama. In their first phone call, McLemore rapid-fire recounts the story of a local boy who was beaten to death after a bar fight, in between wildly derailing the conversation with talks of man-made global warming (he’s most certainly a believer), religion (most certainly not a believer) and the town of Woodstock, Alabama, which he describes as, among other things, Darfur, Auschwitz and, of course, S–t-town.
McLemore is a true American original. His personality is part Charles Bukowski, Ian McShane in Deadwood, Rodney Dangerfield, Perez Hilton, Howard Hughes, Chuck Palahniuk, Lenny Bruce, and Mickey Rourke, among others. Astute listeners, or just anyone who’s ever been around a bloviating dude with the power to suck all the sun out of a room, will figure out fairly quickly that McLemore is essentially a fabulist. Following the opening episode, on my mind was Joseph Mitchell’s moving, eloquent 1964 New Yorker article “Joe Gould’s Secret,” about a bohemian who’s life is revealed to be a stack of embellishments. McLemore, though, has plenty of evidence to back up his bold eccentricity, including the waist-high beginnings of a Shining-like hedge maze on his property. But his highfalutin dialogue about the awfulness of his life in Woodstock belies a genuinely sad individual, buried beneath someone colorfully pretending to be so.
The purported unsolved murder — which is understandably how Serial has been teasing readers to download the podcast — is a huge rug-pull and red herring. It’s not until the conclusion of episode 2, and it’s a tremendously powerful one, that we learn that John B. McLemore has committed suicide. At that point, you might almost want to go back to the very beginning of the first episode, fast-forwarding through the alleged murder subplot (which especially in hindsight, S-Town expends too much energy on), and just listen again to the strange rhythms of McLemore’s rushed, scattered voice, searching for clues.
Reed, indeed, in episodes 3 through 7, proceeds to endeavor on a grand Citizen Kane-style reverse biography of McLemore, based on the man’s own testimony and those of his many friends, neighbors and enemies. Included among those are a 21-year-old local man named Tyler, who pierced McLemore’s nipples with gold rings on the night he died, and a Florida cousin named Rita, who demanded that the coroner pluck those rings off McLemore’s corpse. Yes, this is for real. And these details are just the tip of the Alabama iceberg.
Well intentioned though he is, Reed spends an inordinate amount of time at the beginning of episode 3 on his own stunned, emotional reaction to the news of McLemore’s death. Much more captivating, actually, is the start of episode 4, where we listen to McLemore waxing between vulgar and erudite, a verbal specialty of his, while talking about suicide. Reed has a tendency to floridly over-explain quite a few things (“No positive comment survives his virtuosic negativity,” he says of McLemore). That’s incidental, however, and has come to be expected with Serial. Much more crucial to S-Town’s success, Reed proves to be a superbly gifted modulator of tone in the series. It cannot be understated how important that is.
Reed is obviously cautious, though he never directly says so, of reducing his Alabama townsfolk subjects into glib caricatures for Yankee hipsters to laugh at and feel superior to. Politics rarely comes up explicitly (one man asks with a laugh if Reed is a “liberal upset at us about the election”), but current anxiety pumps vigorously through the veins of S-Town. The notion of two Americas is not only something that McLemore believes in, but inflames with his own ever-provocative ramblings about the race, class and religion. This is a podcast for mature listeners, and though Reed offers fair warning, the content is often explicit, including uncensored utterances of the title and the N-word.
The narrative goes down a many minutiae-clogged road, from treasure hunting for McLemore’s supposed hidden gold to alleged local corruption to the history of clock making. While not uninteresting, these diversions ultimately give the show unnecessary bloat. What might be disappointing to some listeners is the fact that there’s not only no solution offered, there’s really not too much of a mystery either. Still, the culminate effect is devastating. At its heart, S-Town is exquisitely sensitive in its exploration of the simple detail that silently churns beneath its central figure’s suicide. John B. McLemore was gay. He wasn’t out of the closet, though wasn’t in the closet exactly either. In fact, he clues Reed into this fact early, quite hilariously, but saying that he’s a big fan of This American Life superstar David Sedaris.
And the running time allows for nearly an entire episode (the second from the last) to be devoted to the topic of his sexuality. Reed effectively dials down his own narration during a tender long interview with one of McLemore’s old friends (they met years before via a gay phone service) and lets the man’s voice breathe as a testament to McLemore’s aching, human love-starved character.
This sequence of radio invites comparisons to the haunting prose of Faulkner. And, though McLemore and his friend never grew physically intimate, also to Brokeback Mountain, especially the Annie Proulx short story that Ang Lee’s film was based on, which is referenced with much generosity. You might also be reminded of the final scenes in Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight. That’s a film which, had he lived long enough to see it, McLemore would have loved, though he no doubt would have mixed his praise with several sharp remarks. All of that, plus a truly gorgeous concluding five minutes, narrated by Reed, allow S-Town to achieve something very close to transcendence in the art of longform biography. A–