I do not mean to minimize the life of horologist John B. McLemore — the central character in S-Town, a podcast from the producers of This American Life and Serial — and I do not mean to suggest that the life of McLemore is not necessarily worth a seven-hour podcast. But, here’s the thing about McLemore: There’s a guy like him in every Shit Town in America. If you grew up in a small town in the South (or the Midwest, or even rural New England), you knew a John McLemore or someone just like him. Where we’re from, they’re called “characters,” and no offense to Mr. McLemore, but they’re a dime a dozen in small-town America.
Indeed, while listening to S-Town, my one overriding thought was, “Why is this a show? What makes McLemore a compelling figure to the audience?” The reason didn’t really hit me until the end. It’s because Brian Reed — the investigative reporter who is as much a part of the series as McLemore — has as narrow a view of the world as many of those people in Shit Town, Alabama. Guys like McLemore — and the people who populated the small town of Woodstock, Alabama — are as alien to the life of Reed (and presumably, much of the audience who fervently binged this podcast) as a college professor or a Jew is to a Bible belter (I didn’t meet a Jewish person, to my knowledge, until I was 19 and in college).
And so Reed treats McLemore like a sociological oddity, like he’d just discovered Bigfoot and Bigfoot was a depressed, racist, closeted gay man with severe hangups about climate change. Reed is fascinated by McLemore’s “otherness,” which really only exists in relation to the worldview of Reed and a lot of liberal, Yankee NPR listeners, and that says as much about Reed as it does about McLemore. I didn’t find it offensive exactly, but I did find it strange how Reed treats McLemore like a curiosity, like an animal at the zoo, someone whose psychological profile he could unpack using the tools of his elitist education and his fancy book readin’, someone who he could examine and inspect for the educational benefit of his listeners. It wasn’t just McClemore, either: It was the people of the entire town, who were characterized as shifty or shady without a clearer understanding of why those two things are not necessarily mutually exclusive. When you’re shit poor, trafficking in shady activities is just part of everyday life, part of keeping one’s head above water. When there’s no work, education, or other opportunities, an “honest day’s work” is rarely an option.
To the extent that I appreciated S-Town, it was mostly as idle nostalgia, an artifact of my own past. But for the fact that McLemore had the option and the means to leave, there wasn’t that much separating him from my own father: A racist, depressed, closeted gay man who had a lot of shady friends with whom he would converse about “big ideas” every goddamn night for hours on end while they were high or drunk up until my Dad, like McClemore, ended his own life at around the same age. Listening to McClemore felt like home, which is also why the popularity of S-Town feels so weirdly perverse, as though the people of Trumpmerica have suddenly been elevated to an exalted status, exoticized for their accents, their impoverishment, and their Southern eccentricities. Walk around a small town in the South long enough, however, and there’ll always be a McClemore sitting on his porch, disgruntled, self-hating, and angry but with little motivation to improve his life, because changing his lot would take away those things which define him. Who is John McClemore without his grudge against the world? It was his hatred of Woodstock that separated him from everyone else in that town, that allowed him to feel superior to them even as he craved their attention.
Something else that bugged me about S-Town was Brian Reed’s determination to find an external explanation for John’s suicide, like his theory that it was mercury poisoning. After spending so much time with McLemore, after all that time in Woodstock visiting with John’s friends and family, why did Reed need to look beyond what was staring him in the face: Shit Town killed John, as so many shit towns kill Johns every day all around the country. I know that some have taken issue with the podcast for invading John’s privacy, but I think John would have loved every second of it, loved that he is the center of attention, loved the chaos and confusion his suicide generated, the wild goose chase he led others on in search of bars of gold that may or may not exist.
The one thing about the podcast that I don’t think John would have appreciated, however, is any suggestion that mercury poisoning or mental illness played a role in his suicide, because any such suggestion robs John of a decision-making role in his own death. “Shit or get off the pot,” my grandfather, who had no patience for bellyaching used to say. John was too scared to move forward, and he was tired of sitting in his own filth, so John made the decision to get off the pot. In his mind, at least, it was the bravest, boldest decision he’d ever made and to chalk it up to mercury poisoning, quite frankly, does a disservice to John.