It all started with the promise of another murder mystery to dissect.
I’ve longed for another true crime podcast to binge since Serial season one ended. I’ve listened to The Black Tapes, and it was good, but it’s hardly the transcendent work that Serial was. When the producers of Serial, however, announced the spinoff S-Town, I was excited to unwrap another dense and ambiguous mystery.
As soon as S-Town opened, I was hooked. New York reporter Brian Reed recounts the time John B. McLemore, an eccentric antique clock repairman, contacted him to look into a murder that was allegedly covered up. Brian spends a few months corresponding with John, who turns out to be a rather fascinating person, with his antique clocks, his thirteen dogs, his improbably complicated hedge maze, the hidden treasure that may or may not exist, and his non-stop rambling about any subject he can get his hands on.
Aside from climate change and societal collapse, one of John’s favorite subjects is the state of his town of Woodstock, Alabama, which he calls Shit Town. According to John, this town is on the verge of eating itself up and is symptomatic of everything he hates about society. It’s overrun by racists, misogynists, climate change deniers, and is a hotbed of crime and corruption. He can’t leave, however. So he spends his time eaten up by depression, tending to his mother, dogs, and garden.
Until one day he’s had enough and decides to contact Brian Reed about the alleged murder so he can expose to the world what a shit town Woodstock really is.
When Reed flies off to Alabama to investigate the grisly murder, he realizes that John is a man of many contradictions – he expressed his distaste of tattoos and piercings, but his body is covered in them. He hates racists and misogynists, but he hangs out with and enjoys the company of a few white supremacists, and at the same time he uses racial and misogynist insults himself. He hates the rural life and all the trappings of it, but he shows no desire whatsoever to leave Woodstock and everything he despises about it. He is filled with pessimism and bitterness, but that same pessimism is driven by a desire to change the world and make it better.
Reed realizes that John, who urgently called upon him to investigate the murder, had no inclination whatsoever to help him out in solving that mystery. At this point, the true crime trappings that S-Town started with quickly fade away, and we are thrown into unfamiliar territory. With every episode, the podcast changes its focus, and we discover Woodstock – and John B. McLemore – the same way Reed did. Everything that John railed about in the beginning, we see from a different view and we end up empathizing with the erstwhile monsters that John initially painted them as. We are left with a complex, haunting portrait of an eccentric genius living in a forgotten town in Alabama, growing old, bitter, and lonely, lashing out against everything that comes his way.
This portrait sometimes comes off as particularly intrusive and disturbing, but to understand John B. McLemore, you sometimes have to piece through all the facets of this fascinating man, just like the antique clocks that he takes apart regularly and fixes from memory.
I went into S-Town hoping to find a murder mystery to unravel and a place so downtrodden people literally called it Shit Town. Instead I was able to get a glimpse into a world I am sure I had no chance of experiencing, feeling empathy for everyone who took the time to share their stories. I also had the privilege of being able to peek into the mind of the troubled genius at the center of it all.