Find us on Facebook
It’s early morning last Tuesday, and you are queueing up your podcast app for your commute into work, and what do you find? A reason to turn around and go home. All seven episodes of This American Life/Serial‘s newest podcast, S-Town have dropped at once. That’s seven hours of good storytelling time suck. Everyone knows you cannot communicate while engrossed in a good podcast, so take a personal day, get your laundry done and cry with the rest of the nation.
I remember the good old days when no one was sure where the podcast app was located on their iPhones, and we were trying to tell them that Serial wasn’t cereal. Now we are all fully immersed in Hardcore History, Nerdist and Pod Save America. No one needs our help to navigate between Happier with Gretchen Rubin and Dear Sugar. You know this game by now.
But maybe you haven’t bothered with S-Town yet. The preview about clock makers that Serial faked us all out with didn’t impress you, and you don’t have time to binge listen for 7 hours. It’s a commitment that you can’t slack off during. After all, if I’m binge watching The Great British Bake-Off I can’t be expected to weed the flower beds or pick up my kids from school, but like podcast listening still requires me to make dinner if not conversation. EFF THAT NOISE.
Except … you really need to listen to S-Town.
You won’t get any spoilers in this section of this post, but when you hit the next heading, you will. So stop there if you haven’t listened to the podcast yet. First of all, I need to tell you why you want to listen.
All your friends are doing it. If you are in a single group text (or if you are in several like I am) at least 30% of them listened right away and started new text threads without you. You are missing out. They’ll occasionally drop a reference to Cousin Rita and you won’t know WTH they are talking about. Listen. Sit at the cool table at lunch again.
It’s better than Serial. You liked Serial. We all liked (the first season of) Serial. It was different. It was great story-telling. It was pop culture. It was criminal. This is not Serial. But it’s way better. Most of that comes from the close relationship and genuine affection that the narrator, Brian Reed, has with the subject, John B McLemore. There’s a lot less distance between story-teller and story, and it really shows.
It’s not what you expect. You’re thinking it’s a quaint little passion project from a bored This American Life producer. You’re thinking it’s another true crime investigation, this time in real time. You’re thinking it’s too kitsch, too Southern, too time-consuming, too popular to be worth your time. It’s none of those things. It’s an investigation, a treasure hunt, a treatise on poverty, shame and intelligence. An exploration of mental illness and pain and genius. It’s a celebration of a human life in a genre that brings that person to vivid color. It’s like reading a great Southern Gothic novel, but the people are real. It’s Faulkner in real life. You need to listen.
John B McLemore is worth knowing. You don’t know him now. AND DO NOT GOOGLE HIM RIGHT NOW EITHER. If you haven’t listened through at least the 3rd episode, you do not need to know anything going in, and googling will ruin it for you. Listening to John describe himself will paint the picture for you. And it’s a portrait that will continually take shape and change until the very end.
When I wrote “What You Need To Know About S-Town If You Just Finished” it was a laundry list of those things I think were buried and never resurrected in the final episode. THE ANSWERS! I NEED THEM. But I’ve since come to understand the beauty of what’s missing. Still, we all have questions.
What kind of meticulous note-keeper with an indeterminate fortune doesn’t have a will? Ah, this kind.
What would John B think of Trump? This man deserved to live into 2017. Then again, maybe he went out at just the right time. For someone so obsessed with climate change, I have a feeling that John B’s inescapable rants on Trump would have been better than anyone’s.
Can we get some shame headed K3’s way? I don’t need the K’s heads shaved and then shoved down a Highway 5 gauntlet in sackcloth, but I’d be ok with their lumber business falling apart or being sold to, oh I don’t know, The Horological Society of New York (a real thing). What a piece of shit with his coy, “the name K3 don’t bother me;” and his condescending, “John probably spent up all his money before he did the SELFISH thing;” and his smug, “you’re one of them left-wingers aren’t ya?” Go die in a lumber yard fire with your brother
What has happened to the maze? In a story where the lines were consistently blurred between villain and victim, good old KB comes up villain every time. The fact that he owns John’s property and that gorgeous maze makes my stomach hurt. Is there anyone in that county that can at least appeal to his greed and let him know that John’s maze is a sure fire money maker now???
According to reddit, it’s not doing well. This a recent picture and from neglect and a recent drought, it needs some TLC. S-town is a huge hit, and John B is well beloved. Someone keep the 64 solutions a bit of beauty in Bibb.
What is up with Faye Gamble not calling everyone on that damn list? I feel sorry for this poor woman, I do. John subjecting her to that phone call was cruel. But … she knew a whole lot more. And maybe she’s the type that doesn’t like Tyler and his ilk, so caring about whether or not he got his stuff out of John’s workshop wasn’t her priority. And I don’t think it was her job. But I do think he told her on the real what was up with his money. And who are the first people she called? Those cousins. Not the 7 or 8 unknown, non-Bibb county MEN on John’s list of friends. Hmmm.
Who took that gold? Faye seems likely. Last one to talk to John, first one on the scene with police. Police also seem likely because if she told them, they were notoriously corrupt and the reason John contacted Brian in the first place. Obviously, Tyler. There’s that whole off the record convo with Brian, but then … why go to the trouble of trespassing and digging and making a old woman who lived a shoe house with old pallets like some basic pinterest mom if you’re Scrooge McDucking it every afternoon? I know who doesn’t have it: Rita. Because she wanted them nipple rings.
Am I supposed to hate Rita? Because I did, then I didn’t, then I did again. At first she seemed like the perfect Distant Cousin Trope, come to cash in on the death of a rich relative. With her padlocks and her no trespassing warnings, she seems a right villain. Then we hear her side of the story and begin to realize – what else was she supposed to do? Allow some scrub she’s never met to take whatever he wants from John’s property without any written authorization or will? Allow Mary Grace to live with Tyler and his 17 baby mamas? She was doing all she could with a bad situation. But of course, the money was always on her mind. And those nipple rings. “Cut his nipples off!” is straight up EVIL. And don’t even get me STARTED on her selling that land to the Burts. Let’s just twist the irony knife a little deeper, mmkay?
But, like, where did those nipple rings go? They don’t bury folks with jewelry on. It’s why most people have family heirlooms that include wedding rings. So, someone took those suckers out.
Is Tyler a good guy? I want to say yes. It doesn’t seem to me like John B surrounded himself with people who were ultimately evil or out for themselves. He had a real friendship with Tyler (and Jake) that superseded his strange habits. Tyler and whoever else was involved in “Church” must have had that intimacy that Olin was describing – the ability to tell someone your thoughts and behaviors without judgement. Because they indulged John’s masochism with what was described as real dignity.
But … he most definitely forged those bills of sale. Regardless of their friendship, he stole from John’s property. But also, he was refused lawful possession of his own things that were left there. Did he benefit more from their relationship than he gave? Can we judge him by that standard. Villain or victim?
How did the producers create something so beautiful out of something so horrific? There is real pain and misery and neglect and decay … shall I say proleptic decrepitude … in this story. There is death and maiming. There is masochism and loneliness and homophobia and dementia. John B’s life in many ways feels wasted and sad. The potential for beauty dissolved in a vat of mercury. Much like his maze, a life intricate, complex and multi-faceted but destined to die because there is no one to take care of it.
But this story is hopeful. As sad as I am throughout, there are also moments of sheer joy. John describing Kabrum Burt in episode one for instance. Olin’s beautiful recall of their friendship and intimacy. John’s professor’s pure love for the priceless sun dial John spent decades making for him.
No, I promise I’m stopping right there. The null set metaphor itself will end up in several senior theses and I refuse to be that person.
Did John orchestrate all of this and/or without his death would there have been no story? This is the one that keeps me up at night. We know John was paranoid and suicidal, symptomatic of his probably mercury poisoning. But was he also genius enough to create a literary masterpiece around his own life and death? Just ten years ago he saw his father die uneventfully, on their land. He spent the next decade ignoring his mother’s needs to some degree (hearing about her boarded up room, lack of TV, and general squalor made me angry with John who could be empathetic enough to get tattoos he didn’t want to help a friend’s business but not enough to ensure his mother lived without flea bites), and very possibly, planning his own death.
If John B had not committed suicide in such a poetic, literary way, Brian Reed would never have told this story. Did John want to be known? Is this how he ensured it, or was he simply a mad genius?
What happened to all those unopened Furbies? We will never know.