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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