I wrote this after I’d listened to the full series over a week or two in Oregon and sent it to a friend but forgot to post it here. Comments welcome as ever.
An unexpected email to the radio show ‘This American Life’ in 2012 was the starting point for this long and winding journalistic narrative (by Brian Reed) which was released – in seven one hour episodes – in March of this year to widespread acclaim. The comments that follow assume you’ve listened to all of them as they are replete with spoilers.
It is a paradox of our time that ‘in depth’ journalism, the kind we associate with the BBC or the newspapers of record, has been all but obliterated by the rise of online content, universal publishing and the frenetic, unreflective deluge of ‘news’ coverage that is calculated to optimise the delivery of potential consumers to advertisers rather than convey anything that is new, still less challenging, to its audience. We appear to have more news than ever but less information and even less insight. It was a promising pleasure therefore to hear about S-Town (short for Shit Town) which took five years to make and required countless edits, rewrites and myriad fact checks in order to bring us a selective but wide-ranging and coherent slice of life in a small, remote and undistinguished town in rural Alabama. The chronology (a very apt word in this context!) of events is, by the end, pretty clear and the seven episodes cover the period from March 2012 to December 2016 more or less as they happened. But the programmes were not released piecemeal so the team were able to edit the ‘earlier’ episodes in the light of what happened in the following years and then present them as if they were a contemporaneous record of an unfolding story. This slight piece of artifice caused me to pause a few times – despite the thrall of the storyline – and wonder if it was really a ‘true’ story or just well-constructed and thoroughly researched historical fiction. Sometimes the editing was just too impeccable as sound bites were stitched into a knowing narrative – knowing more than the listener could ever have inferred.
There were other misgivings, one serious, the others minor, but, in fairness, I should first give credit for some of the excellent work embodied in this substantial piece of journalism. And there is much to like and to praise. From beginning to end there is a balanced approach to complex issues and situations. Subjects including racism, sexuality, poverty, fanaticism and ecology are teased out in the earthy language of the rural poor. Simplistic conclusions and stereotyped personalities are both studiously avoided by the production team so that we meet all our protagonists on their own terms. The tone, register and cadence of speech are captured in the verbatim recordings of the people of rural Alabama (and elsewhere). Initially we hear mainly from John B McLemore, our chief protagonist, as he talks frequently and at length with the narrator, Brian Reed. From the very start McLemore is a profane, profound and intriguing person. A self-taught polymath, who is either dirt poor or very rich, but whose longtime profession is that of horologist, specialising in the restoration of the most complex and rare timepieces. His initial allegation is that a murder has taken place in the town – which he christens Shit Town – and has been covered up because the guilty party is the scion of the town’s richest family. I got the feeling that it was not so much the alleged murder but the range and depth of McLemore’s knowledge that eventually caused Reed to travel to Alabama and meet him. McLemore does not disappoint. He is manic and magnetic. Talking rapidly and precisely about ecology and global finance, while showing his collection of clocks, his numerous dogs and his carefully constructed maze, which can be configured to vary its challenge. John lives with his declining mother and appears never to have had a serious romantic relationship. He inhabits a dystopic world, but he is not irrational, since he can provide scientific findings and published data to support his conviction that the world is on a disastrous trajectory. In the end he can’t provide much evidence for the alleged murder and the story might have ended there. A wild goose chase. A colourful interview. A bucolic road trip. Material for a short, light programme. But instead, John killed himself before the story had been wound up. Reed goes to the meagre funeral and stays on because his interest is piqued by the contradictions surrounding John’s death. There are grasping relatives – from central casting via Florida; Mourning ‘family’ – especially Tyler – John’s unofficially fostered son; evasive lawyer and mysterious town clerk. There is even a ‘death list’ – the names and phone numbers of people John wanted phoned as soon as he died. Most weren’t phoned, for reasons that remain unclear, but Reed follows them up and, in the course of the last three episodes explores and explicates the ever richer story of John B McLemore. Former (male) lovers are identified, John’s exalted status among his peer horologists is firmly established and, with some sense of closure, the cause of John’s terminal depression is identified as being mercury poisoning, contacted by using a very dangerous gilding process – ‘fire gilting’. But the riddle of John’s wealth (or lack of it) is not solved. The strange behaviour of the town clerk (Faye) is not explained and, as the series ends, we are unsure of Tyler’s fate as he has been charged with removing materials from John’s estate which he believes belong to him.
It is a compliment rather than a criticism to say that the story leaves many loose ends. These are testament to its real-world nature, where human stories don’t fracture neatly along plot lines but, instead, we have to accept that people’s lives are irregular networks which have no obvious beginning and no clear conclusion – apart from the biological. But I would have liked to know more about the relationship between John and Faye, the woman he rang as he was poisoning himself with potassium cyanide. Why didn’t she phone the people on the list and why did she feel compelled to say she did? And what happened to John’s clock collection? Was it shipped to Florida and sold off? These are minor quibbles and can be answered simply with the statement that the story had to stop somewhere and, at almost seven hours in length, it had already fulfilled its purpose. My main misgiving is with the level of intrusion on people’s lives. Even in the FaceBook era with its pervasive self-exposure I’m uneasy hearing the actual sound of people hearing heartbreaking news; the raging sadness of a mercury poisoned man (who’d been optimistic in his earlier years); the intimate details of a dead man’s love life – which he’d kept so secret while he was alive. Balancing this is the recorded testimony of an impressive life which might easily have gone unnoticed outside a small circle. The education of we, the listeners, in the real lives of poor but stalwart people and, to some extent, in the passionate interest of John McLemore. Assuming that all who were featured have given informed consent and, realising the exuberant mind that was to be recorded for posterity, I’m inclined to accept that the intrusion is justified by the result.