The Woman from Uruguay by Pedro Mairal, trans. by Jennifer Croft

Part picaresque, part tragedy, this critical day in the life of a hapless Argentine writer and would-be lover is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Pedro Mairal’s The Woman from Uruguay follows a contemporary Argentine writer named Lucas for a single fateful Tuesday, as he travels from Buenos Aires to Montevideo and back again. Lucas narrates these events, with flashes forward and back in time, in a lengthy direct address to his wife, Catalina. “You told me I talked in my sleep. That’s the first thing I remember.” He is stumbling, if not entirely failing, as a writer, in debt to nearly everyone he knows, and fairly sure that Catalina is cheating on him. The purpose of the day trip to Uruguay is ostensibly to collect a significant sum of money in cash (advances on two books), which Lucas expects will change his fortunes. His hidden, secondary purpose is to visit the titular woman with whom Lucas has been captivated since they met at a writers’ festival months earlier. He calls her Guerra–war–and is obsessed by their so-far-unconsummated affair.

Lucas is not an entirely likable narrator. He is self-pitying, a bit sleazy in his adulterous aspirations and at best a mediocre husband and father. He resents his wife for her ability to support him financially, and his young son for disrupting his work (“How am I supposed to write with my kid dangling from my balls?”). But readers will be drawn in by the mysterious Guerra and the pathetic and darkly comic narrative of Lucas’s unlucky day. He can be woefully misguided by desire (for Guerra, for escape from responsibility), artful in his telling (Lucas is a writer, after all), wry, clever and even wise. In buying a ukulele for his son: “I realized I’d rather play the ukulele well than keep playing the guitar poorly, and that was like a new personal philosophy. If you can’t handle life, try a lifelet.” The translation from Spanish to English by Jennifer Croft (Homesick) handles such moods and idiosyncrasies perfectly. Lucas’s child is a “tiny little elderly man, that haiku of a person,” “a drunken dwarf.” Readers may not be precisely rooting for Lucas to get what he wants (which is a bit unclear even to Lucas), but they will certainly be eager to find out what happens next.

In just 17 hours, this luckless protagonist experiences great hopes and severe losses, navigating both a marital crisis and an existential one with limited grace but great ardor and intensity. Challenged in love, marriage, parenthood, finances and fantasy, he makes a mess but comes away with a story to tell and, for a writer, there are worse endings. “May death be to know all,” he muses in hindsight. “For now, I can only imagine.”


This review originally ran in the June 4, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 hopes.

This Shining Life by Harriet Kline

A family struggles to honor the loss of one of their own and a remarkable boy works to solve the puzzle of the meaning of life in this poignant, loving debut novel.

Harriet Kline’s This Shining Life opens with a brief prologue: a happy family, a joyful party at sunset. Then the tone shifts. “My dad died. He gave everyone a present before he died. He gave me a pair of binoculars. They smell of books that haven’t been read for a very long time.” This is the voice of Ollie, a boy with certain gifts (sudoku, puzzles, literal meanings) and challenges (socks, hugs, turns of phrase). As the novel considers the death of Ollie’s dad from various points of view and at different points in time, Ollie’s chapters will always begin the same way. “My dad died.”

Ollie’s dad, Rich, was spontaneous, fun-loving, kind and a great lover of cheese. He was a devoted husband to Ollie’s mom, Ruth. Ruth’s sister, Nessa, originally set them up; she and Rich had been best friends since college. Ruth suffers from depression, like their abrasive, troubled mother, Angran; Nessa believes in charging in and grasping life in a firm grip, consequences be damned. Rich’s parents, Gerald and Marjorie, are starched and proper where Angran is bohemian (Gerald says it as if it’s a dirty word) and brusque. They are a motley crew, but all devoted to Rich. In this engrossing story of grief, love and mix-ups, Ollie fixates on the puzzle he believes his father has left him, in the presents he left behind. Because of something Rich said, Ollie believes these gifts hold the secret to what it means to be alive. “I want to do that puzzle now. I want to feel happy like he did. All I have to do is get the answers right.” Time jumps around, so that Rich is dead and alive again, as Ollie attempts to track the gifts Rich has sent to his loved ones and discern their hidden meaning.

In a novel about grief and love and continuing on, these characters are heartbreakingly flawed: Nessa’s pushiness, Angran’s rudeness, Gerald’s blustering into dementia. Shifting perspectives do the essential good of enforcing empathy even in the face of quite bad behaviors. As Ollie single-mindedly pursues the solution to his father’s puzzle, the adults around him seem too caught up in their own struggles to aid him; will they rally in time?

This Shining Life is attuned to the importance of setting, including natural spaces like the waterfalls that dominate this family’s neighborhood, and the deep potential significance of objects, like those fraught gifts that Rich gives. It is a sad story, of course, but also joyful, in the style of Rich delightedly offering cheese at his final party. It proposes that grief and love are inextricable, and that there may be light even in pain.


This review originally ran in the May 27, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 threads.

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Book four of the Murderbot Diaries is proceeding pretty much as I’d hoped. We’ve got some returning serial characters, and further development of the idea that bots are people, too. Check out that blurb from the front cover: “One of the most humane portraits of a nonhuman I’ve ever read” (from Annalee Newitz). I wholly agree, and think that that’s one of the great victories of this series. Murderbot is drily funny, self-deprecating, sarcastic, deeply feeling and resistant to the truths of its own emotional self, and who among us hasn’t wished we were a little more stoic, a time or two?

[Side note: something new has just occurred to me. I think Murderbot and Reacher have a few things in common. Both try to mind their own business, but both are helpless to resist helping dumb humans in need, even as they feel exasperation about it. Both have superhuman abilities, not only in physical fighting but in quick calculations on the fly and strategic thinking. (Only Murderbot has a good explanation for these qualities.) Both have a tendency to be delightfully deadpan. Both try to slip out into the night when things get wrapped up. They’re both sort of knights-errant, preferring not to hurt innocent bystanders but reasonably quick to upgrade (downgrade?) a person’s status to hostile as situations develop. These are qualities I appreciate, and I think there’s a definite parallel here that helps explain my love for both rogue elements.]

“Ship’s drones gathered to watch me, confused as to why I was going out the wrong door and beeping sadly about it.” Even the drones are given emotions: confused, sad. The idea of humanizing the nonhuman feels like a helpful step in rehumanizing each other, too. These books star a murderbot who is not human though it has ‘organic parts,’ and who is not legally recognized as a person in most of the worlds it travels in, but it has human friends from a world where bots and human/bot constructs are legally recognized. Can it even see itself living in this new way? In the midst of a fight to the death, our protagonist offers a deadly CombatBot the option to be free from outside control. “…dodging projectiles, it was hard to come up with a decent argument for free will. I’m not sure it would have worked on me, before my mass murder incident. I didn’t know what I wanted (I still didn’t know what I wanted) and when you’re told what to do every second of your existence, change is terrifying.” These are weighty questions, and Murderbot is an excellent guide to them: snarky, hard-shelled, but soft and melty on the inside.

I continue to love the thread in which Murderbot is an entertainment media addict, too. Aside from being unexpected and hilarious, as it was from the outset, it also offers opportunities to think about its future career options (recall I just recently noted its wisdom in critiquing narratives), as well as how stories and characters speak to us, and what they can stand in for. Here, a human friend asks Murderbot what the media does for it, why it loves its favorite show so much (that’s The Rise and Fall of Sanctuary Moon, which I sincerely hope will appear as a spinoff someday). This allows it to think about its own possible personhood, and empathy. There is a lot going on in this series of slim scifi novellas, a lot of reach. I am increasingly excited about the progress to come. (I am also feeling pleased with some of my own predictions.)

I hope Martha Wells is off somewhere writing more Murderbot right now. I expect to get through the last two books soon.


Rating: 8 hard currency cards.

Cleaning the Gold by Karin Slaughter and Lee Child

Another quickie from Reacher, somewhere in the short story/novella range, this time from Lee Child working with Karin Slaughter, who I’ve never read but obviously I know the name. An introductory Authors’ Note tells us that the authors have been friends for decades, and that their contributions to this story are merged “so you won’t necessarily know who wrote what.” Cleaning the Gold involves the head-to-head meeting of the authors’ respective serial stars: Will Trent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Jack Reacher, retired Army MP. The former is new to me, but I like him.

In a nutshell, and with a mild spoiler, both these men are sent undercover to the United States Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, for different reasons. Reacher’s there to catch somebody on the inside, in a crime I won’t name here. Trent is there to catch Reacher. They both have to do some figuring-out, and they have to figure each other out, too.

Like “The Christmas Scorpion,” this is a satisfying enough short story, but not a perfect one – neither Child nor the Slaughter/Child team is on par with Hemingway or du Maupassant in terms of the deft, poetic turn of masterful short fiction. It’s fine. Both leads get cute and pithy lines and the scenes that convey their characters; there is a fight scene or two. In close third person, chapters alternate their points of view, and it’s fun to see each man from his counterpoint’s perspective. There are a few layers of mystery, which is always neat, but it might be a hair ambitious for a story of this length (listed at 144 pages, but only about 100 of that is Cleaning the Gold; the rest is a preview of a then-forthcoming novel by Slaughter). It ends with an loose thread that is not entirely typical of Child’s work; he’ll leave an opening for the next installment, but not an actual loose end. I wasn’t crazy about that in the finish; I think we could have used a bit more closure, which might have helped with the neatness of the short-story-as-genre. And I do think the story would have tolerated losing that last layer of mystery.

I faltered on the very first page, too, with two details that felt very atypical of Child/Reacher. (Despite the authors’ assurances, I did feel that I could tell who was who, at least here.) I cannot imagine Reacher ever noting that “the temperature outside had already passed the boiling point” unless it were literally true, which (Google tells me) has never been recorded on earth. He’s pretty pedantic like that. Then, Will “watched a bead of perspiration drop from his nose and roll across the floor.” Something about the bead of sweat, itself, as a bead, rolling across the floor bothers me, in terms of physics. (Reading Reacher makes me extra pedantic, too?) On the other hand, a judicious number of jokes (two) about the place being “guarded like Fort Knox” went over well with this reader. And a single reference to Tom Cruise and the most unbelievable scenes in action movies, which I am reading as a joke about his (problematic) role as Reacher in two films to date, went over very well.

Maybe not my favorite thing ever by Child, but a perfectly nice way to spend a little time on my front steps with a beer and a little dog.

Also, the teaser of Slaughter’s next Will Trent novel, The Last Widow, is good.


Rating: 7 gold bars, obviously.

Home Stretch by Graham Norton

This novel of strong bonds, secrets and small-town Irish life is both sweet and horrifying, and completely absorbing.

Home Stretch by Graham Norton (Holding; A Keeper) wends its way from small town to big city, from Ireland to England and the U.S., and back again, tracking family and community. This aching saga begins in 1987, in a small village in Cork, when six young people are in a car wreck on the way home from the beach. Three are killed, one lies comatose and two walk away unscathed–physically, at least. But their lives, and those of everyone in the village of Mullinmore, are changed forever.

The novel follows these characters over the ensuing decades, most centrally Connor Hayes, the social outcast who was inexplicably driving the car when it overturned, and his younger sister, Ellen. Turned out of town by shame, blame and guilt after the tragedy, Connor lives and works in Liverpool, London and New York City, wrestling with his past and self-loathing. “The task of untangling the mess of secrets that he had created seemed so impossible.” Ellen stays in Mullinmore. A chance encounter in a Manhattan gay bar will eventually reconnect Connor to his distant past and see the next generation get another shot at correcting certain mistakes.

Norton rotates the novel’s point of view so that readers see the impact of the car wreck from many angles. The Hayes family suffers Connor’s survival alongside the grief of the families of the dead, two of whom were on the eve of their wedding. But it is that tangled mess of secrets that will most haunt these characters, and readers, as Norton doles them out teasingly into the final pages.

Home Stretch is by turns charming and harrowing as it accesses some of humanity’s darkest moments and impulses, as well as some of the best. That expert balance of comfort and pain is perhaps the most memorable feature of a novel with complex plotting, twists and turns and characters who do not fit easily into likable and unlikable categories. This is a story of the many kinds of love and betrayal that can hold and haunt people, of filial and community ties and the meaning of home. “This is what homecoming meant. Arriving in a place to discover you’re fluent in a language you’d forgotten you ever knew.” Home Stretch is a riveting narrative, a character study, a love letter to a place and a culture, and a moving coming-of-age story.


This review originally ran in the May 21, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pints.

Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

Book three of the Murderbot Diaries keeps us right on track, and they’re so slim and easy to read, it takes willpower not to binge them. Our murderbot takes on a new name for this adventure, and a new self-designed mission; both of these are outside the normal range for murderbots (or SecUnits, for security units). But our SecUnit is special. In some ways, this episode resembles the last, in Artificial Condition: the murderbot hitches a ride, hoping to quietly take in some shows and maybe a little light reading and be left alone until arrival at the next place where it hopes to do a little research, solve a mystery. But it gets 1. recognized by a bot it didn’t anticipate and 2. tangled up in the plans and lives of a group of humans it regrets feeling something for, and therefore 3. roped into protecting them – like in its old life, but on its own terms.

The pattern here continues to develop an important point: bots and SecUnits are rather closer to being “people” than we are originally led to believe, meaning they have loyalties, feelings, and personalities. This allows for some ideas about liberties, responsibilities, and “human” rights (which in this world may need to apply to some beings that are not strictly human). It also makes me look forward to what is to come. Our murderbot (of the several names, now) will carry on, growing into its own. It will continue to meet more characters that will test its understanding of bots (etc.), and eventually I imagine it will have to redefine that understanding, as I am doing as reader. I can’t wait for more adventures. And I love the murderbot’s sense of humor and irony as much as ever.

Another fun twist in this novella was the murderbot – an avid consumer of serial entertainment shows, remember – forming some opinions about what would and wouldn’t make good entertainment feed narrative. I’d love to see it get into the writers’ room!

This was book three and there are only six; I’m already sad. One of these is a full-length novel, though? That will be fun!


Rating: 7 core samples.

“The Christmas Scorpion” by Lee Child

Very short review for a very short story – I love that I can use my local library to catch up on all the little Reacher snippets I may have missed! This one took just a few minutes to read. Reacher heads south for the winter, by habit, because he doesn’t like the cold. But he finds himself outside Barstow, California in a freak blizzard, and then is quickly sucked into a plot involving a foreign dignitary and a mysterious would-be assassin. It’s a fun Reacher-style puzzle, with building tension and a whodunit, but actual violence is minimal.

Despite the title, this is not a Christmas-themed story, although there is snow.

The short format doesn’t leave room for much development of Reacher or the other players, so I think this one reads best for preexisting fans who know the background – not a great entry point for newcomers, because there’s not enough background. (Short stories are hard. This one relies on the rest of Child’s body of work.) But as a quick hit for the fans? I loved it.


Rating: 7 shadows.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Tracey Lange

Following Monday’s review of We Are the Brennans, here’s Tracey Lange: Family Loyalty.


Born in the Bronx and raised in Manhattan, Tracey Lange comes from a large Irish family. She graduated from the University of New Mexico, then, with her husband, owned and operated a behavioral healthcare company. Lange lives in Bend, Ore., with her husband, two sons and their German shepherd. Her captivating debut novel, We Are the Brennans, will be published by Celadon Books on August 3, 2021.

Did this family come to you whole, or did it begin with Sunday?

(photo: Natalie Stephenson)

It started with Sunday, really, and with the idea of someone coming back into the family fold after being gone for years. And then all the questions started, like, why did she leave? What’s going on? Why’d she come back? And it just went from there. I pictured a big-ish family; but she was the one I started with.

Or, really, it started with the situation. I wasn’t even sure if this would be a male or a female character at first, it was just the idea of someone coming back into the family. And then the more I sat on it, it just started to present itself. It’s the situation I landed on first.

Is Sunday your favorite, or the one you feel closest to?

That’s a tough one! I suppose I relate a lot to her in some ways, but I also relate to Denny, I love Kale, I love Jackie! Jackie was fun. I would have liked to actually spend more time with him. It’s hard to say, but I guess when I think of who I relate to the most, it would be Sunday.

What do you feel makes the Brennans so compelling?

It’s just that idea of family and what it means to them. That’s what fascinated me. Because every family works so differently, and it gets passed down through generations, and it changes as it goes. Part of that is my own experience: I have a huge family, and a lot of them are in Ireland–they’re spread out, really, but we try to stay in touch. And we’ve got our messes and dysfunction, too, but at the end of the day I feel like I could knock on any of those doors and be welcome, or if they needed something, I’d do anything I could to help. There’s just this loyalty that I see with the Brennans, which is why they’re able to work through this stuff and ultimately forgive each other and come together. It just starts with family and what it means to them.

There’s a real sense of magnetism in this family center, an alchemy.

That’s what I was going for. My dad was one of 15–he has this huge family in Ireland, and that’s how I felt whenever I’d spend time there. They were just such a special clan unto themselves, and it was very cool to be part of that and around it. I’m sure that helped influence what I was going for here.

Is West Manor based on a place you know?

In terms of location and size and the flavor of the place, it’s largely based on Briarcliff Manor in Westchester. But I felt like I needed to change it up a little bit. I couldn’t call it Briarcliff Manor. That’s where I pictured it; it’s loosely based there. I grew up mostly in the city, but I spent a lot of time in Westchester, Long Island, that whole part of New York, and I felt like I had a good feel for that kind of town and that environment, and who would be attracted to living there and what they would be looking for. I didn’t grow up in that town, it was more the city for me, but I had a sense of that place.

Influences have come in from my family members. Mickey’s history is a lot of my dad’s history, coming in from Ireland and working in construction, but my dad was not a member of the IRA or anything like that.

How do you manage the task of switching between points of view? Is that an organizational challenge, or one of voice?

I worried a little bit about distinguishing between each voice, because it was a lot. And of course I got a lot of warnings, you know, oh, that’s a lot of points of view, it could be distracting or throw people off. But for this story it helped me put it together. It gave me a structure. Moving immediately to that next point of view was helpful. Sunday’s the protagonist, but it’s about this family, and they all have secrets. And this was a great way to get in on those secrets without the other characters knowing. So at least in this story, it felt like that worked, because it is so much about the dynamics between all these people.

It might have been Hemingway who is credited with saying you should stop writing each day right before you want to, so you know where to start when you pick back up…

That’s a good idea. I should do that more. Then I wouldn’t procrastinate when it came time to sit back down.

What are you working on next? Will we get to check back in on the Brennans?

I’m not closed off to that idea. I’ve thought a little bit about where they might go, but I haven’t started that project. I do love visiting them–whenever I have to make another pass with the book it’s so fun to get in there with them again.

I’m well into my next project now, which is another messy family drama, but quite different in terms of what they’re dealing with and the dynamics. That’s what fascinates me, what I read a lot of and what I love to write about, is family dramas.

You’ll never run out of material!

Yeah. No kidding.


This interview originally ran on May 12, 2021 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: We Are the Brennans by Tracey Lange

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on May 12, 2021.


Tracey Lange’s We Are the Brennans is an utterly riveting debut novel of family ties, secrets and the depths of love. Beware the unintended single-sitting read: this magnetic story has the power to draw its reader from cover to cover in one gulp.

The Brennans are an extremely tight-knit Irish American family living in West Manor, N.Y., just north of Manhattan and “leaning upper middle class.” Mickey Brennan is now widowed, but the memory of his wife, Maura, casts a shadow. They have four children. The eldest, Denny, has a large frame and a large personality. He is half owner of a pub called Brennan’s (or Ó’Braonáin’s, in the Gaelic), begun on a loan from Mickey and Maura and very much the family business. Next in age is Sunday, the only child to have left the neighborhood, much to the family’s chagrin. Jackie is her Irish twin, at just 14 months younger: recently in trouble with the law, he’s moved back home to save money and help out. Shane is the youngest, genial and developmentally disabled, around whom all the Brennans rally. And then there is Kale: Denny’s business partner, a neighbor since childhood, an honorary Brennan–and Sunday’s former fiancé. Aunts and cousins cycle through as well; the charismatic Brennans have a large, comfortable household with a strong center of gravity.

As exceptionally close as they are, the Brennans also specialize in secrets. Denny has not been honest with his wife or Kale about the pub’s poor financial situation. Jackie is the only one who knows why Sunday really left town.

Chapters alternate perspective among these characters, chiefly the four siblings but also the other Brennans and Brennan-adjacents. There is an argument to be made for Sunday as main character; she was the glue that held this clan together, and it is her homecoming that sets the novel’s events in motion. But the book’s title points toward the family unit as central; their inextricability is compelling, unique and apparently infallible. Each chapter ends with a line of dialogue that also opens the next chapter, but from a different point of view, which contributes to the momentum that will keep you up all night to finish this book in one go. The effect is nearly cinematic, as if the camera shifts to show the same scene from another angle. This technique also highlights the impact of a deeply bonded family insisting on keeping secrets.

The Brennans are captivating, even hypnotic, for readers as well as for those who enter their orbit in the world of West Manor. In her debut novel, Lange shows a sure hand with characters both flawed and complex: Jackie loves bartending and is a talented painter, although only Sunday supports his art. Kale’s devotion is complete, even when he’s had to navigate the relationship of his best friend (Denny) and his childhood sweetheart (Sunday). Kale’s wife is challenging, but nuanced. Denny’s daughter Molly is sweet and spirited: she embraces her new Aunt Sunday wholly (after sitting her down for a serious talk about the preexisting plan for her to inherit Sunday’s room when Molly turns five). These damaged, fierce, loyal Brennans and their intricate problems will capture readers’ hearts entirely and not let go. Their story has everything: intrigue, crime, heartbreak, therapeutic awakenings and a romance that feels both impossible and inevitable.


Rating: 9 broken glasses.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Lange.

podcast: S-Town

S-Town is an American investigative journalism podcast hosted by Brian Reed and created by the producers of Serial and This American Life. All seven chapters were released on March 28, 2017.

I have been hearing about this podcast for years, and I’m sorry it took me so long. As soon as I started it I was hooked, riveted, couldn’t stop. So beware.

S-Town is the polite abbreviation for Shittown, which is the moniker given Woodstock, Alabama by a colorful character who is from there. John B. McLemore contacts Brian Reed by email, and the two end up emailing and talking on the phone for some time – at least many months, maybe a year or more – before Reed is convinced to go down and meet the man in person. John B’s original story for Brian is about a murder that has been covered up by corrupt Bibb County, which he would like the journalist to investigate. Well, this is an early spoiler but a mild one: the alleged murder never actually took place. But by the time Reed figures that out, he’s met John B, who is an addicting character. Wildly eccentric, genius, and yet somehow also an everyman. S-Town thinks it’s about a murder, for a minute, but really it’s about John B himself.

Or is it? I coach my students to pay close attention to titles, and this podcast is titled after the town itself; or rather, John B’s colorful description of the town. Maybe the show is about John B’s worldview. The man himself; the town; John B’s philosophies; Brian Reed’s unresolved feelings about these subjects; the final disposition of the man at the center of things.

To quote the Vox article that is linked later in this review:

John is all of the following: a queer liberal conspiracist who socializes with neighborhood racists; a manic depressive consumed by predictions of cataclysmic global catastrophe; an off-the-grid hoarder of gold who takes in stray dogs; a genius with a photographic memory who’s spent his whole life caring for his mother while designing a massive and elaborate hedge maze in his backyard; and one of the most skilled antique clock restorers in the world.

I feel that, on one level, S-Town is an example of the best of what creative nonfiction can do. It focuses on a man who is, at least in some ways, just a regular dude from a backwater town in a part of the country that we are accustomed to looking down on. It turns out that the everyman is remarkable, however: he is inarguably hyperintelligent; he’s also eccentric, disturbed, deeply troubled. (He actually reminds me so vividly of someone I have known intimately for much of my life that I was often freaked out by the similarities, so much that I don’t think I can name that person here, although those close to me will recognize who I mean.) He’s endlessly fascinating. Reed gives the impression of simply capturing the outpouring of weirdness from John B and passing it on to us – artfully composed, but otherwise authentic. Look how crazy real life can be! Fact is stranger than fiction, and all that; the best stories occur in nonfiction because we wouldn’t find them believable in fiction, I often feel.

Of course, there is a little bit of a falsehood there. All narratives are mediated in some ways. No story could tell everything about a man, and this one is limited by time (seven episodes averaging just under an hour apiece), and by Brian Reed’s limited access to John B. (The subject here is extremely forthcoming, but who can ever share all of himself; and they only know each other for so long.) Any narrative necessarily shapes its subject, no matter how honest it tries to be. But I find this piece of creative nonfiction – the seven episodes as a whole – an extraordinary example of craft and art, and an exemplar of the power of creative nonfiction at its best.

It’s also been the subject of some controversy. I’ve tried to keep the rest of this review pretty nearly spoiler-free, but if you want to appreciate the podcast as intended, stop reading now and go listen to it first.


There have been complaints (and lawsuits) over Reed’s use of personal information. Did he exploit John B? Has he aired more personal business than the subject intended? John B is not here to speak for himself, which makes these questions harder to answer. But I think… if Reed has exposed a lot of John B’s innards, that’s just what journalists do. John B contacted a journalist, knowingly invited Reed into his life, and then granted him enormous access to himself, his home, his mind, and his writings. And John B was a smart man. If it’s a bit off-putting to see so much personal stuff exposed – and I do find it a bit uncomfortable – well, what else did we expect? It is certainly great storytelling. We can’t know what John B would have thought of the final product. But he doesn’t strike me as a man worried about outward appearances. Sometimes journalism, and creative nonfiction, can be a little unsavory, folks. (Perhaps this is why I’m pretty much a nonpracticing nonfictionist at this point.) But S-Town no more so than the rest of it. If anything, I think Reed did a decent job of resisting the temptation to view Woodstock with disdain or even the curiosity of a visitor to the zoo; I think he tried for nuance.

Rather unusually, I’m writing this review more than a week after finishing the podcast – I generally like to get to things much more quickly – and so I can tell you it’s sticking with me, as fascination and as a bit of a puzzle. I’m not ready to indict Brian Reed or the podcast, but I don’t feel excellent about the whole thing, either. For a few other perspectives, many of them less complimentary than mine, check out Medium (with spoilers!); even better, I think, is Vox‘s coverage (also with spoilers). The latter does a very good job of explaining what is outstanding and what is troubling about S-Town, in my estimation. But best of all would be to go listen to it yourself.

John B will be with me for some time.


Rating: 9 drops of mercury.
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