Spoiler alert for the podcast S-Town. I ruin it.
So if you party like I do then you’ve already binged the entirety of NPR’s S-Town podcast on a Saturday night while sharing a fifth of cheap Scotch with your best friend, a crayon drawing of a sad woman on a napkin.
S-Town is a fantastic journey revolving around the troubled redneck genius John B. McClemore– and during those revolutions, a layer from the small town in rural Alabama is shaved off and inspected thoroughly, revealing that every inch of this place has John’s DNA somehow embedded into it, even well after his suicide. It’s a mind-blowing piece of investigative, empathetic journalism.
And there’s a popular theory that John himself “authored” the narrative of this story from the very beginning and there’s a lot of tempting evidence that this is the case. Too many metaphors make too much sense. You have the “null set” of the maze which not only summarizes John’s philosophy on his own life (there’s no solution and yet you’re trapped in an experience of convoluted twists and turns and frustrations) but also that of his thoughts on climate change (no solution to the biggest problems that plague us)– the pessimism is almost redundant. There’s never any solution, just problems, of which John bitches about constantly. Brian Reed even suspects that John had set up the “null-set” on purpose early on in the series. And that carries an implicative weight to the other puzzles John has proposed: namely, the murder that wasn’t a murder and his hidden stashes of gold that might not actually be buried. Problems without solutions. Wild goose chases. Geese chases? Never mind.
There are other metaphors, of course. One of the most striking is how John gilds a dime to give to Brian using potassium cyanide. He ingests the same chemical later to kill himself. The beautifully grim metaphor, if there is one, is that John was symbolically turned to gold on the inside. (Sidebar: it could very well be that this is the metaphorical gold that John has sent Travis to look for– not material wealth, but the appreciation of their friendship once he’s departed. But that rings a little too smug and cold, even for John. It sounds too much like every high-schooler’s threat “you’ll miss me when I’m gone.”) The gold metaphor comes full circle when it’s revealed that John’s other preferred gilding practices likely incurred gradually detrimental brain damage similar to the Mad Hatter’s disease.
So did John just use Brian Reed to enact a dramatic suicide note? My take? Not really. You’d have to discount the tireless work Brian and his team did to find this extremely personal narrative, slogging through hundreds of hours of audio. S-Town is a testament to how important editing is– how essential scene selection can be for an emotional payoff. John was a man who rambled, rambled coherently maybe, but shot off from one subject to the next until it inevitably spiraled into climate change and the doom of his shit town, Woodstock.
John also thought in metaphorical concepts. He’s a clock-fixer-upper, it makes sense that he could create complicated stories with people acting like the cogs that turn against each other… but again I feel like that’s a disservice to the amount of work put into this thing and the narrative constraint they put upon it. S-Town could have been many things, if based on John’s metaphors alone. But everyone involved in production was smart about it and they made it into a journalistic novel not unlike Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
And I salute them for a storytelling strategy that often goes unappreciated– that of constant deviation and tangential leaps. I think, because John was who he was, this was almost inevitable. Well, that and the fact that the first story (the non-murder) would have rang kind of flat if not for Reed’s post-mortem investigation into the intrigues of Woodstock.
If you think about it, the narrative goes from hanging out with John (noting his pierced nipples), to the murder investigation, to the suicide, to the familial troubles of John’s family which branches off into two distinct parallel perspectives (Travis and Rita, the former of which is now searching for gold, the latter of which tried to get those nipple rings as a keepsake from the coroner), both of which leading towards contacting the lawyer and town clerk (Faye), which opens a lot of questions which leads towards John’s perhaps most intimate friend and the explanation of the “flagellation” ritual of piercing his nipples repeatedly. It could be that I’m bad at summarizing things, but I think I got the basic story down.
I’m using the nipple ring motif because it’s something that first appears as a random, almost unnecessary detail that keeps returning as a slightly more relevant (even contentious) detail before the symbolic weight of the piercings are finally revealed. It’s also the perfect example of a little quirk that binds two disparate narratives together. Of all the legal conflicts between Travis and Rita, it’s the nipple rings that apparently affect both on a solely emotional level. And for Travis, the explanation brought us back to John’s workshop, practicing their “Church” service, one of the last images we have of John in S-Town‘s narrative. It initially came off as thematically forced to thread the story along before Reed and his team finally let the last Tetris block fall into place.
The art of tangential storytelling is that if you take enough left turns, you’ll eventually end up where you started, but, like all stories, you’ll have gained perspective. By the end of S-Town we’ve gained the perspectives of many people who’ve interacted with John, but in a sad way, once the series is over, we’re back to a world where John doesn’t exist and are forced to ask the question, am I the better for knowing this man? S-Town (or Woodstock), too, like the gloomy protagonist always insists, is more or less the same town it always was, minus an eccentric that many of the townsfolk preferred not to know. Are they the better for having this series released?
The latter is the kind of question I can’t answer definitively. I think exploitation was avoided as much as it could’ve been. Not that it might matter to the people of Woodstock. “Fuck it,” is the motto for telling everything upfront, after all. In that, I feel, there is some elemental truth of honesty. The tattoo artist is upfront about his racism and Reed, while hiding the fact that he’s married to a black woman and is Jewish, accepts that and moves on to other topics of discussion. He does it without necessarily demonizing the guy. That was a lateral move of empathy, uncomfortable though it may have been, on Reed’s part to keep on digging for the story– and he found it (summarily: John would get a tattoo every time the shop was in the red to give them enough business to get ’em back to black). Effectively Reed piloted a narrative into a crash-landing in shark-infested waters and made the story about the sharks and where they swim. But they’re not as scary as you’ve come to believe. That’s the kind of opportunity that this kind of story mechanic allows for.
The structure of tangential storytelling is more intuitive than you might think. After all, the recipe for the second act of a hardboiled detective novel or police procedural TV show is rooted in the act of interviewing people. This is what translates so elegantly to the podcast format of S-Town– Reed acts as detective running down leads on his deceased friend and picking up common threads between seemingly unrelated perspectives. We see those interactions recorded as they happen and we love it. It’s why you’ll remember scenes from All the President’s Men if not the actual newspaper article that broke Watergate. Just like John’s riddle of where he left his gold, it’s the journey that’s more important than the outcome.
Which might be trite but nonetheless true.
I suppose it’s because that journey uses every tangent as a discursive opportunity to explore an element of John’s life or otherwise his impact of the people he left behind– and their lives in S-Town. To bring up my favorite book on earth, The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño employs the extreme method of using 52 narrators to account for the actions and whereabouts of two scummy poets over the course of several years. The plot of the novel is entirely implicative, obscured by the dozens of stories people tell, not only about the poets, but about their own secrets, troubles, impulses, mental illnesses, historical fascinations and racial biases. It tells of the evasive duo, but not without letting in the reader about their own life. Likewise, John B. McClemore is sort of a magnet thrown into a mine. He’s always at the center of things, but everything/one that sticks to him is also fascinating.
Which nullifies the “null-set” paradigm of reading S-Town. At least on a cynical level– I doubt that John’s dream of a suicide note would include intimate details about his rhinoceros-skinned nipples. It includes everybody he’s known, and while he’s had his own time to devise his time on earth, it’s the people that he’s interacted with that get to spin his legend. And everyone’s got a different outlook on the guy. He’s been many things. But there are common threads of kindness, pettiness, embarrassment, cowardice, success and failure…
And through these many lenses we get the character of John from the outside looking inward.