It was right around halfway through the first episode of the “S-Town” podcast that I realized that I was experiencing something brand new. At least, brand new to me.
Under the shared umbrella of “Serial” and “This American Life,” reporter/host Brian Reed has created a piece of entertainment unlike anything I had ever heard before. Over the course of seven episodes that span approximately seven hours, listeners are dropped into a bewildering, hilarious and heartwrenching narrative.
“S-Town” – the “S” stands for a popular curse word – starts out similarly to the breakout “Serial” podcast. Someone – in this case, a man from the small town of Woodstock, Alabama by the name of John B. McLemore – has reached out in hopes of convincing a reporter to come investigate a crime, an alleged murder supposedly committed by a scion of a particularly notable family that was subsequently swept under the rug.
Reed and McLemore strike up a correspondence, one that leads Reed to make the trek to Woodstock – a place that McLemore constantly refers to with the derogatory name of “S—t Town” (hence the name of the show) – and probe further.
But what initially begins as an effort to uncover the truth about a criminal cover-up quickly becomes something much more.
“S-Town” ceases to be a true-crime narrative fairly quickly. And while Reed initially gives the impression of being a bit of a tourist who is peering through the glass at the rough-and-tumble characters that orbit McLemore (John B. to his friends … and ultimately to Reed), that vibe falls by the wayside as well.
What you’re left with is a surprisingly complex look at the life of a complicated man. John B. professes to hate the world in which he lives, both locally and globally. His rambling declarations of disdain are equal opportunity – unprejudiced in the distribution of his prejudices. He lives in a ramshackle house and cares for his mother; a polymath of sorts, he studies climate change, repairs old clocks and has built an intricate hedge maze on his property.
And yet – there’s love there as well. Love buried under layers of anger and confusion and superiority, but love nonetheless.
Going into detail regarding the actual narrative arc would be doing you a disservice – I’d advise you to just go on ahead and listen to the show. You might not believe that you have the time or patience to invest in a seven-plus hour podcast, but you’re almost certainly wrong – your biggest issue might well turn out to be not listening to the thing in its entirety all at once.
What makes “S-Town” such a spectacular success in my eyes (or ears, if you will) isn’t so much the story – although it is incredibly compelling - but the manner in which that story is told. Reed has created something intensely unconventional. It has a journalistic foundation, yet veers off in directions that feel positively literary. He embraces the weird dramatis personae of this modern-day Southern gothic world, characters that wouldn’t be out of place in Faulkner or O’Connor or (insert notable Southern writer here).
It is that contrast in voices that captivated me. Reed narrates as a journalist, maintaining a degree of distance (or the illusion of distance). But all of these other voices, recorded with permission, tell their own tales as they help fill in the details of the big one. In essence, this entire story is told through a series of unreliable narrators; that notion is exponentially magnified by the distinct possibility that Reed – the meta-narrator – has himself lost impartiality and become unreliable in his own right.
While Reed might have set out to create a work of journalism, what he actually created is a work of art. I don’t profess to be an expert in the podcast form – and I’ve certainly never invested myself in a longform audio narrative such as this one before – but if the general reaction to “S-Town” is any indication, this is something different.
There are a lot of questions that are raised by “S-Town” – and not all of them are answered. And one could argue (as some already have) that there are ethical ramifications to the story being unfolded as it was. But as a piece of storytelling – as art – it’s difficult to deny its impact.
So how do we define “S-Town”? Is it journalism or literature or something in the middle? Hard to say. But I can say this – whatever you choose to call it, it is captivating and powerful … and utterly unforgettable.
(“S-Town” can be found at stownpodcast.org and other sites - including iTunes - where podcasts are available for download.)