How S-Town is upending the art of podcasting
S-town, the latest offering from the makers of Serial and This American Life, is a brilliant piece of creative nonfiction. Never mind that it's a podcast; Shittown (which is the show's less-censored name) is bigger and weirder and distinctly essayistic; layered in ways most podcasts aren't, literary in ways few attempt. Indeed, S-Town expands the podcast's potential as an art form.
That S-Town is hard to classify is reflected in its marketing. Hosted by Brian Reed, a producer of This American Life, the seven-episode podcast was unusually coy about its subject matter and its relationship to Serial, Sarah Koenig's investigative podcast that became a viral juggernaut and revolutionized the form. The website announced S-Town as a podcast "about a man named John who despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. He asks Brian to investigate the son of a wealthy family who's allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder."
That's a description notable for how little it clarifies. You almost know less after reading it. You might observe that the legal system's most gossip-dampening word, "allegedly," modifies the word "bragging" rather than the more thrilling word "murder" (which appears at the end of that sentence, almost as an afterthought). You'll note — if you're still paying attention — that we're being asked to be interested in the fact that someone named John asked a reporter to investigate someone who's allegedly been bragging. (About a murder.)
What that squirrelly, avoidant sentence papers over is exactly the point: The murder didn't happen. This is a story structured around holes and absences and anticlimaxes which ultimately re-assert the kind of off-the-record privacy so many texts of this kind strip away for the thrilled listener's benefit. S-Town promises to be any number of things — a treasure hunt, a true-crime investigation, an expose of town malfeasance, an adjudication of who's lying and why. It disappoints on all those fronts. You will not find out what happened to the gold, or who the lover was, nor will you hear much from the mysterious characters who catalyze and conclude the series, Jake Goodson and Mary Grace. This is a configuration of the maze with no solution.
But what you get in lieu of answers is arguably richer and more experimental. If, in documenting her efforts to find the story behind the story in Adnan Syed and Bowe Bergdahl's cases in Serial, Sarah Koenig gave a kind of crash course in journalistic ethics, then Brian Reed shows how an ostensibly linear true-crime story can develop into a garden of forking paths, forcing you to choose a side, over and over, until you back out from the maze it's turned into and patiently start again.
You'll notice I still haven't said what this podcast is about. There are reasons S-Town had to be so coy. (Warning: Spoilers follow. I strongly suggest you turn back and listen to the podcast before reading further.)
S-Town is really the story of John B. McLemore, a voluble and eccentric horologist from Woodstock, Alabama, who contacts Brian Reed to ask him to look into a murder that might have been covered up. He lives in "Shittown," he says — a community riddled with tattoo-covered failures and governed by corrupt officials. He overheard one of the local youths he hires to work on his 130-acre property, Jake Goodson, talking about how a guy named Kabram Burt bragged he'd kicked another kid in the head repeatedly until he died. Burt is from a wealthy family — perhaps he's being protected? Will Brian investigate?
Brian will — mostly because "John B." turns out to be one of the world's most amazingly compelling interlocutors. What a podcast can do that literature can't is render the particularities of someone's voice — isolating it from everything else about them. John B.'s lilting accent and grammatically perfect strings of eloquent profanity are fine stuff. Many listeners of S-Town understandably assumed he was an actor in a reenactment; John B. seems too colorful to be real. The force of his obsessive intelligence and charm eclipses the sordid murder he asks Brian to investigate.
When Brian first visits John B., a tour of his property ends with a visit to a giant maze he's created, complete with gates he can recombine into 64 different configurations. It's only waist-high, but they end up lost in it — an incident Brian suspects John B. of engineering. He seems like he'd be unable to resist the poetic irony of leading a journalist down a literal garden path and getting lost in a maze of his own making. John B. gives Brian "bedtime reading" that includes A Rose for Emily; this is a guy whose sense of himself is enmeshed in literature, and he wants to make sure Brian thinks so too. Like Emily, John B. lives with a parent on an estate that reflects a family in decline. Like Emily, he's the subject of a lot of rumors. Like Emily, he harbors some secrets.
And, like Emily, John B. ends up dead.
The most wrenching twist of S-town comes at the end of its second episode, when Brian finds out that John B. has committed suicide. The rest of the podcast unspools in response — and turns into a deep dive into the brilliant clockmaker's reasons and intentions, and into how others respond when John's death fails to produce the effects they expected.
Death produces complication, and in S-Town, Brian Reed builds a kind of McLemore machine that recalibrates in response to different perspectives. Each episode makes it feel like you're starting the maze anew, hoping to solve it a different way. Take Tyler Goodson, the 23-year-old for whom John was a mentor, and who John loved dearly despite his flaws. At one point John — who tells Brian he's "unbanked" — says he wants to end his life so he can leave Tyler some of what he'd otherwise use up by living. That John leaves no will is a problem; Tyler struggles with the court system and with John's cousin Rita to get what John wanted him to have. This is frustrating. For the space of that episode, we're on Tyler's side.
But another episode shows Tyler as he appears to John's cousins, who are relative newcomers to the codependent dynamic John and Tyler evidently enjoyed. To them, he's a thief who sneaks onto the property and repeatedly robs Mary Grace, John's elderly mother and heir who suffers from some unspecified form of dementia (John says she has Alzheimer's; it's later claimed she does not). We find out some unsavory details: Mary Grace's purse went missing after John's death, when Tyler was the only one with access to the house. Tyler forged John's signature and sold two of his cars. We know some other things about Tyler, too: He runs a tattoo parlor that has a secret room for whites to hang out in. He planned to kidnap a man and cut off his fingers until he returned the guns he'd stolen from Tyler. Under Reed's careful narration, our sympathy starts to shift.
Reed's own angle on John shifts, too. In some episodes, S-Town depicts a brilliant man struggling with terrible loneliness. In another, John has more long, intense, and intellectual friendships than most — the kinds of friends who break down crying when they think of him. In one version of John's story, his suicide is a perfectly rational act: a small action he's long contemplated taking against climate change and against Shittown. A different version might note that, for all his kvetching against white supremacists and failures with tattoos, those are the people whose company John B. sought and most enjoyed.
The story of John B. twists with every twist of the dial. Each episode introduces new considerations, new points of view, and new characters who offer an almost entirely new way of understanding John's life and his death.
It's hard to overstate Brian Reed's skill as he puts all that together — all those voices, all those perspectives. It's also hard — and this is worth thinking about — to keep readjusting one's sympathies and narrative weights and balances in the way Reed's narrative demands. We are not clocks, and by the time we discover that John was in fact a kind of founding father for the place he now calls Shittown, I discovered it was a little too late for me to take in. The mechanism through which I'd been viewing John had rusted over enough that my perspective was locked in.
My point is this: The order in which Reed presents things matters immensely. It's significant that we find out about Tyler's plan to cut off a man's fingers long after he's been presented to us sympathetically. It's significant that we first hear Rita almost weeping over Mary Grace, and that the last thing we hear from her concerns the excision of John's nipples along with his rings. For all that Reed tries to elide his own judgments in the podcast, those editorial choices are strong, and worth noting.
It's interesting, then, to consider what Reed left in and what he left out. Reed is open about some things that didn't make it into the podcast. To take the most obvious instance, Reed decides to let us hear a recorded conversation in which he warns Tyler of the risks of telling him whether or not he found John's gold, and he lets us hear the moment Tyler tells him turn the recorder off. It's a moment that never unlocks for us: Reed keeps Tyler's reply off the record. But telling us he's keeping it off the record is quite a move — Reed is the clockmaker in this scenario, leaving witness marks for us to track down and reconstruct.
But just as interesting as the stories Reed hints at throughout the podcast are the ones that are totally omitted. This podcast is bookended by Jake Goodson's story about Kabram Burt and by Mary Grace's dreams of giving birth to a genius. It's notable that we never actually hear much at all from either Jake Goodson or Mary Grace. Jake Goodson never really becomes a character in this story, despite being one of the two brothers to whom John said he wanted to leave a bunch of money. Neither does Mary Grace, the woman who presumably owned all of this property and still should.
It's tempting to think of this narrative as a clock — Reed invites us to do so in the first episode, which begins with some philosophy about time and the ways we measure it. But the best metaphor might be John's maze: a puzzle that forks and forces you to choose sides, over and over again, but configured so that there's no solution. Creative nonfiction differs from journalism to the extent that it recognizes the truth as subjective. Looked at from above, S-Town is a magnificent work of art. Seen differently, it's just a collection of potential paths.