S-Town review – it’s hard to recall a more touching, devastating podcast

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Warning: this review contains spoilers.

When the makers of Serial and This American Life announced their new podcast, it appeared that it would probably fall in the true-crime genre. The information was sparse: an email had been sent to This American Life, asking a reporter to investigate “the son of a wealthy family who had allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder”. All seven episodes would be released at once. What emerged last week was far greater, and more grand, than a simple whodunnit. S-Town has unfolded with elegance and subtlety, and it’s hard to recall a more touching podcast, even within its This American Life ancestry.

S-Town is about a great many things, but these things gather around the life of John B McLemore, the articulate and garrulous man from Alabama who emailed This American Life offering up a hometown mystery and a story of corruption. After months of talking on the phone, producer Brian Reed was intrigued enough to visit “Shit Town”, officially known as Woodstock. John takes him on a dizzyingly fast tour of his home and grounds, where he has built a maze so complex he gets lost in it himself. John is charismatic, wordy, intellectual and largely misanthropic; he certainly seems to despise the town he feels he didn’t do enough to escape. He is a horologist – renowned for his clock-making skills, it turns out, far beyond the southern states. He is a voracious reader. He is kind and he is cruel, angry and resigned. He sounds paranoid, at times, playful, at others. Later, there’s a hypothesis as to why, though like much in this story, it is never quite resolved.

At the end of the second episode, Brian learns that John has taken his own life. It’s devastating. Brian’s distress at the loss of the man who had become his friend is stark and upsetting. It’s a rift in the expected narrative and a genuine shock to us as listeners. This was supposed to be about the police officer accused of sexually assaulting women, or the cover-up of a murder by a rich man’s son, some real life version of True Detective. But John’s death sets the stories of S-Town on a wider stage, and asks bigger questions, and turns this into a deep exploration of empathy and understanding. John’s life, which he seems to say has been stuck in this Shit Town, turns out to be so rich that unpacking it over seven episodes can only begin to do it justice. It might, one hopes, make its listeners consider the untold stories behind more people than John B McLemore. You get the impression, at least from what Brian presents to us, that he might have liked that.

If there were some concerns that this might be an exercise in exoticising the south or small towns, or some kind of class tourism, it’s a testament to Brian’s skills and sensitivity that it never feels that way. He knows he’s the kind of leftie that the election of Trump upset, as one of the men puts it. But, as with Serial, the process of putting this story together is explained throughout, and the intimacy of that is honest and effective. As the listeners are learning, so is he. I imagine that in the days to come we will learn what Woodstock’s residents make of their new fame; I’ll be interested to find out how they feel.

S-Town is particularly good at navigating subtleties and grey areas. In a digital age that rewards polemics, it stands out even more in its refusal to judge anyone, instead presenting people in all their contradictory messiness, including John himself. We meet racists, we meet thieves, we hear about violence and abuse and loss. These things can be hard to hear, but everyone involved is treated as a person. At times, the most trivial of anecdotes can unravel into something unbearably poignant, such as John’s embrace of Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain, which he comes to call “the grief manual”.

There’s a macabre humour running through it, too. While the tale of the nipple piercings becomes more desperate towards the end, it’s hard not to see the tragicomedy in Rita telling the undertaker to cut his nipple off, because he’s dead anyway, so she could have a memento (though that is one of the many grey areas). When Tyler says John had “a little sugar in his tank”, it’s as sweet as it is sad.

There will be questions about the ethics of a podcast such as this; there has been at least one story deciding that without John’s full consent, this podcast should not have been made, and there is already a great deal of activity online dedicated to finding pictures of John and his home. Again, whether this will be welcomed by Woodstock residents remains to be seen. But ultimately, what gives it a kind of permission, I think, is the great hope that resides within. For a story that hinges on a troubled and lonely man drinking cyanide in his own kitchen, it ends up being life-affirming. It’s about surviving when you don’t fit in, finding connections where you can, and the beauty that resides in the most unexpected pockets of a person’s existence. It’s a delicate and splendid obituary, and a noble attempt at understanding a life.

Listen to S-Town here. In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14.