A Journey Into S-town

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. What about a name though? Can the name of a book foreshadow its quality? For instance, if a book was named S-town would you be intrigued enough to pick it up? For myself and 16 million others, the answer was “yes” and the reward was spectacular.

Despite all the illusion to books, S-town isn’t a book at all. Rather it is a podcast created by This American Life and hosted by Brian Reed. To break it down simply and as to  not give away too many clues about the podcast (although if you haven’t listened to it yet you’re a little late) S-town is a story about John B. McLemore, a murder and a secret life. And while these seem like pretty generic descriptions, there is nothing generic about S-town.

S-town is the kind of podcast that really drags you around in unexpected ways. You know something is wrong from the beginning but you aren’t sure how. The narrator, Brian Reed, begins by describing how difficult it is to fix an antique clock and you’re suddenly whisked away to a small town in Bibb County Alabama to meet John. B. Mclemore; a pessimistic horologist with a dislike for tattoos and a disdain for small town Alabama. According to Brian he is there to investigate a murder, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that the murder is really a secondary plot and bibb county leaves a lot more to be uncovered.

At the beginning John is simply the character driving the narrative. A secondary narrator in his own story that he himself helped facilitate. Soon after however, you realize that the story is about John. B. Mclemore and that he is an anomaly; even in his own little world. Sure each of the characters have their quirks, but even among them, John sits on a different level from the rest of his associates.

First of all John seems to be very intelligent, sometimes to a fault. He is certainly more intelligent that his fellow Alabama citizens and is quick to point that out. While driving around the small town, he talks about trying to convince people that S-town is rotting from the inside out but “The first thing you’d have to convince them of is that the world isn’t 5000 years old.” He is also highly critical of religion, despises climate change critics and is suspicious of wealth despite there being rumors of his having a cache of gold hidden somewhere. Like I said, John isn’t your typical Alabama resident. He is something different; uncatagorizeable and with a staunch refusal to be put in a box.

When it comes to the narrator, Brian Reed seems to take it all in stride as well as any journalist could. Even when John gold plates a dime to remind him of his trip using cyanide, (a deadly gas) he stands by and tries to understand this man who doesn’t seem to fit into any pre existing social circle. He draws many conclusions from his observation, but it isn’t until the climax of the story that John B. Maclemore becomes less of a background voice and more of the central part of the story, that Brian really sees what he’s been looking at the entire time. For the listener and Brian alike, it’s like looking closely at a large painting really close then stepping back to encompass the bigger picture.

Arguably the best part of the podcast is the fact that until I looked it up, I wasn’t sure whether I was listening to a fictional or non fiction story. Sure, This American Life focuses on nonfiction stories, but there were times where the descriptions were so fantastical that I had to figure out what I was listening to. I’m not going to tell you which genre it is simply from the point that I believe Stown is best experienced blind. You’ll actually have to do some research. In the end I think you’ll be happy that I didn’t give it away.

Anyway,  that’s all for me on S-town. Check it out online or on your favorite podcast app then come on back and we can talk about it! I love hearing from you!

M. Taylor

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