S-Town: When a Podcast Becomes a Book

By Nic Dobija-Nootens

Near the end of the first episode of the new crime podcast S-Town, from the makers of This American Life and Serial, host Brian Reed asks himself, “What am I still doing here?” Reed is in the small town of Woodstock, Alabama, watching S-Town’s subject, an eccentric clockmaker named John B. Mclemore, tinker around his shop. Reed came to Woodstock to investigate a murder Mclemore emailed him about, but at this point in the show, the basic facts of the murder, and the issue of whether it even happened, are in question. Reed thinks he might be facing a dead end, but Mclemore, a 50-year-old southerner with chest tattoos, nipple piercings, and an expert knowledge of antique clocks, intrigues him to stay. Eventually, Mclemore pays off.

All of S-Town’s seven episodes were released in one bingeable bunch. The show begins as an investigation of a small town murder cover-up, gets sidetracked by another death, and turns into an examination of one man’s struggle with time and absorption into small town life. S-Town feels like a hybrid of its predecessors, combining the dramatic intrigue of hit podcast Serial and the intimate style of storytelling in This American Life. As Reed familiarizes himself with the people and goings on of Woodstock, the goals of S-Town turn out to be less concrete than those of Serial, which involves solving a murder and an act of treason, and instead approaches that of many This American Life episodes: empathetically immersing itself in one person’s life.

S-Town isn’t the first podcast to be released in its entirety, but it breaks new podcasting ground by being the first podcast to function much like a nonfiction novel, which is how both Brian Reed and producer Julie Snyder describe it. “It was really explicit,” Snyder said in an interview with the Huffington Post, “We talked about it as a novel and we referenced novels.” In the same interview, Reed said: “We don’t even consider the episodes as episodes. They’re chapters.” While the chapter structure makes the novelistic format explicit, the podcast’s nuanced treatment of thematic elements and its willingness to spend entire episodes describing single characters also provide the narrative richness of a book.

Like in many novels, the themes of S-Town don’t reveal themselves immediately. S-Town’s main theme of time becomes apparent after a few episodes; Mclemore’s impressive work as a builder and restorer of old clocks is the most noticeable inspiration. But that aspect of his life often takes a back seat as Reed guides listeners through Mclemore’s many fascinating and disturbing quirks. Mclemore regularly visits town hall for philosophical chats about Socrates and Immanuel Kant with a local building inspector, but he also pees in his kitchen sink while talking on the phone with Reed, interrupting their conversation to tell Reed what he’s doing.

Reed opens the show by describing the puzzling nature of Mclemore’s clock restoration work. There are hundreds of tiny gears, springs, and cuckoo birds to keep track of, plus the greater problem of attempting to deduce what has actually caused a clock to stop working. “Maybe there’s damage that was never fixed, or fixed badly,” Reed says. “Sometimes entire portions of the original clockwork are missing, but you can’t know for sure because there are rarely diagrams of what the clock’s supposed to look like.” Reed continues, “You’re constantly wondering if you’ve spent hours going down a path that will take you nowhere, and all you’ve got are these vague witness marks,” indents and discolorations left behind by missing parts, “which might not even mean what you think they mean. At every moment along the way you have to decide if you’re wasting your time or not.”

Reed, we soon find out, feels much the same way about examining Mclemore. Without giving explicit clues about what lies ahead, this introduction pulls listeners in, and gives a taste of the blind, meandering investigation to come. Like a clock restorer, Reed comes to study Mclemore late in his life. He can observe the person that Mclemore was at the time of their meeting, but can’t see the events and decisions that have shaped that person — he only sees their effects. So Reed must piece together his understanding of Mclemore through a patchwork of stories from Mclemore and others in Woodstock. The theme of time, and its connection to Mclemore’s clock restoration work, doesn’t exactly help Reed or his listeners understand Mclemore better. But it engages the audience more fully, allowing them to draw connections between the characters and the story that can enrich the listening process and, especially for binge listeners, give them something to hold on to as they spend seven hours with Mclemore and Reed.

Mclemore is difficult to pin down. He swears liberally but has a pedantic love for language. He loses himself in his 53-page manifesto on the dangers of climate change and modern capitalism just as easily as he loses himself in a beautiful flower. Physically, he’s covered in contradictions. He hates seeing tattoos on people in Woodstock because he considers them to be “expressions of hopelessness,” primarily the hopelessness that Mclemore associates with people who, like him, spend their whole lives in small towns. Yet Mclemore’s chest is covered in ink. Mclemore’s tattoos are expressions of his general self-loathing. But as Reed learns, Mclemore only gets so many tattoos because he wants to financially support a struggling local tattoo artist, a young man named Tyler Goodson, who Mclemore hopes to rescue from the drudgery of Woodstock.

Goodson is Mclemore’s closest friend, and Mclemore sees him as a product of everything that’s wrong about Woodstock. Goodson started doing manual labor supposedly at the age of five, just to help his family pay their bills. Now he supports his three young daughters with income from the tattoo business he started, called Black Sheep Ink, and whatever Mclemore pays him for doing handiwork around his house. Mclemore wants Goodson to develop the skills and opportunities to leave Woodstock if he ever wants to, but for now, Mclemore just wants to make sure Goodson has enough to get by. The projects Mclemore has Goodson work on, like growing a hedge maze in his backyard, are often thinly veiled excuses for Mclemore to give Goodson money. And Before Goodson closed the doors of Black Sheep’s last brick and mortar location, Mclemore kept track on his own of the business’s income and expenses. If Goodson was short at the end of a month, Mclemore would come in to get tattoos and give Goodson enough money to keep the place open.

Mclemore openly hates Woodstock and the lack of vocational and educational opportunities he claims it offers residents like Goodson. He frequently complains to Reed about the town’s police being corrupt, its residents being small-minded drunks, and its notoriety for being, as Mclemore says, “one of the child molester capitals” of Alabama. Mclemore nicknamed Woodstock “shit town,” which is where the show gets its name, and often talks with Reed about wanting to leave. But despite loathing Woodstock, the personal connection and responsibility he feels for so many people there make it impossible for him to simply leave. He takes care of his aging mother with Alzheimer’s, regularly takes in stray dogs, and plans to bequeath the small fortune he amassed in antique clocks and inherited gold unto Tyler Goodson and his brother Jake. Mclemore’s interpersonal relationships give him reasons to stay, but they’ve also helped him become a perplexing enough figure to warrant seven hours of riveting radio. When Reed justifies his study of Mclemore in one of the final episodes, he simply says, “I think trying to understand someone is a worthwhile thing to do.”

Early on Mclemore describes his relationship with Reed as a kind of unexpected confidant. “I’ve never had anybody ask me what I’m depressed about,” Mclemore says. Although Reed enters into Mclemore’s life as a journalist, and one whose initial purpose isn’t even to tell Mclemore’s story, over the course of the show he transforms into Mclemore’s biographer and friend. It’s never formally diagnosed, but Mclemore appears to suffer from depression, and sometimes talks about one day killing himself. At these moments Reed tries to reassure Mclemore that not only would Reed miss him, but many people in Woodstock would too.

Mclemore’s unclear sexual orientation — he describes himself as a “semi-practicing homosexual” — is one part of his life that he can’t share with others in town, including his mother. When Mclemore finds tolerance and a willing ear in Reed, he’s grateful to share seemingly everything about himself. Reed tracks down a man who previously dated Mclemore but was kept separate from almost everyone else in Mclemore’s life. In this way and others, Reed reveals Mclemore, not just to listeners around the country, but also to the people in Woodstock who may have known and cared about individual sides of him, but had not previously met the complete man.

The characters of S-Town continue their lives after the show, but they can’t shake off the experience of being broadcast to millions of strangers. Tyler Goodson has been the most receptive to this publicity. Since the show aired, Goodson has shared photos on Facebook of Mclemore in his backyard hedge maze, and another of his knuckles with “SHIT TOWN” written across them. In one post, a photo collage of train tracks heading into an antique clock face has an inspirational message written at the bottom: “Time has a wonderful way of showing us what really matters.” Goodson appears to be carrying on the empathetic goals of S-Town, proving to Reed that his work has indeed been worthwhile.

 

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