Every small town has a square peg, a person who is definitely of the place while simultaneously defying it. John McLemore, the main character of S-Town, the new podcast from Serial Productions, is a particularly outsized example, one that seems to embody many archetypes in one person. There’s a high-minded, well-educated world-weariness about him like Ashley Wilkes from Gone With the Wind. He’s a bit of a mystery to many of his fellow townspeople, who speculate about him like he’s the Boo Radley of Woodstock, Alabama (although much more gregarious). His fatalism and despair at the state of the modern human condition might lead you to think of John as a weird Byronic hero: moody, dark, and possibly deceptive.
Serial Productions has created something in the vein of the Southern Gothic, because that is literally the only way to describe the atmosphere trailing John. I mean, when Brian Reed visits him in Woodstock, Alabama (which John refers to as “Shit Town”), John gives him some light evening reading that includes Flannery O’Connor and Guy de Maupassant. Seriously.
This is the sort of world we’ve stumbled into: a gardening fanatic and horology expert who calls a New York-based radio show ostensibly to investigate a murder perpetrated by a local who manages to be both a son of privilege and a general yahoo. Brian heads to Woodstock, after more than a year of phone conversations, to chat in person with locals in John’s workshop, in the secret hidden room in the back of a tattoo parlor, and behind a pile of wood in a lumberyard. The interviews and monologues are interwoven with the ominous plucking of violin and upright bass courtesy of composer Daniel Hart, who draws on the regional musical traditions of the Deep South. Each episode ends with The Zombies’ “A Rose for Emily,” a song that mournfully alludes to John’s own Faulknerian existence.
We learn the names of the plants in John’s garden, what he drinks while electroplating souvenir pennies for visitors, and of the general malaise that dogs him like a dark cloud blocking the view of one of his homemade, mathematically precise sundials. He’s wildly intelligent, caring for his infirm mother in their family home in rural Alabama, and has taken an intense interest in one of the local kids almost as if he’s his own son. He rails against his hometown, laments the lost chance to leave and explore new vistas, and almost in the same breath, reminds you that the Antarctic ice shelf is about to melt and leave us all underwater. He’s a thinking man, and as he’s talking to Brian Reed you feel like someone’s grabbed your hand and is dragging you through a lovely cemetery through the trailing kudzu smelling the sweet, cloying scent of late summer flowers, all the while reminding you that being on this side of the grass is just a temporary privilege.
I listened to the first episode with interest: A murder mystery! A cover-up! But honestly, you stay plugged in to hear John’s distinctive twang ramble from subject to subject, wandering in and out of history, literature, math and science, from anything and everything on his mind (and everything is ON his mind) and somehow you don’t hate him for it. The fact that he sounds like he belongs at a NASCAR rally and appears, through his own actions, to be somewhat of a hypocrite, only endears him to the listener. What a conundrum.
The action takes a dramatic turn at the end of the second episode. This is where I recommend you take a breather, perhaps a nice walk outside where you can appreciate the air, the sounds all around you, a lovely view. Then come back, because we will have a lot to talk about.
Until next time!