It is hard to know what to expect from a “nonfiction audio novel,” as the idea in itself is novel. I expected something strange to occur, but the fact that all of the events and characters were a reality made the story seem almost stranger than fiction. What kind of person actually practices fire gilding? Who would want a dead man’s nipple piercings? Whose idea of church is getting tattoos and subjecting oneself to various forms of pain? The people investigated in the podcast series S-Town were so strange, so unbelievable that for the first three episodes, I thought I was listening to an extremely realistic and detailed fiction podcast. Brian Reed does a fantastic job of weaving together a story from a series of interviews that leaves listeners questioning reality. The already precarious establishment of reality is made even more uncertain by the constant gossip of the Woodstock citizens, portraying various conflicting realities with no clear resolution of the truth.
Another aspect of the podcast that leaves listeners questioning is the numerous changes in genre. S-Town starts out as a true crime podcast, investigating the potential cover-up of a murder, brought to Brian Reed’s attention by John B. McLemore. However, the story seemingly comes to a dead end when it is discovered that no one even died in the first place. The story shifts considerably when John B., an important character in the original investigation as Reed’s informant and host, commits suicide. In the episode following John B.’s suicide, the narrative seems to become that of a treasure hunt; everyone is in search of the gold about which John B. constantly bragged. However, this narrative seems to fade into a character study of John B., shifting genres without warning. Each genre is interesting in its own right, but the constant shifting makes the organization of the podcast seem messy. I understand that Reed had to work with what content and information he had, as S-Town is a work of nonfiction, but seeing as he didn’t compile the information into a storyline until after he had finished his investigation, he could have organized the timeline and genre with more care, in a way that would have been less confusing to readers.
Furthermore, there is a lack of prestige at the end of the podcast series, leaving listeners thinking what’s the point? Reed spends four episodes investigating the life of one man, but does not seem to reach any hard conclusions about who John B. was. Instead, Reed chooses to conclude with a description of John B.’s ancestors, explaining how John B. achieved ownership of his land. Although this historical background does not offer a hard conclusion regarding John B.’s character, it does provide context for the McLemore family and the town of Bloody Bibb. John B.’s great-grandfather, Jesse Miller, was a gang leader and extortionist, accruing land via threats and stealing from his neighbors, allowing him to pass down a considerable inheritance to his son, Brooks. Brooks then passed the land down to Mary Grace, who birthed John Brooks McLemore. The realization that Jesse Miller became one of the wealthiest men in Woodstock via extortion, even as far back as the 1890s, suddenly makes the epithet “Shit Town” seem very appropriate. The listener realizes that John B.’s cynicism may not have been entirely unfounded, for even Woodstock’s greatest critic was the product of the crime and sin that he so despised in the town. However, this is the closest that Brian Reed ever gets to including a prestige.
I did appreciate Reed’s inclusion of excerpts from John B.’s manifestos, as it provided more insight into the mystery of a man that still could not be fully explained after four episodes of description. The manifestos made John B. seem both more complex and more relatable due to his constantly changing and conflicting worldview. In some of his manifestos, John B. would lament the descent of humanity, while in others he would express a deeply profound appreciation for nature. These excerpts help to explain why Reed could not formulate an explicit conclusion regarding John B.; he was too complex a person to tie up with a neat little bow. I also appreciated Reed’s mention of three particular short stories (John B.’s bedtime stories), as they helped provide insight on John B. via simile (John B. is like Emily in “A Rose for Emily,” or John B. is like Mathilde from “The Necklace”). Since John B. is indescribable, it is easier for listeners to understand him in relation to literary characters. After all, John B. is grand and outlandish, as any great literary character should be. I also like that this literary theme continues in the podcast’s closing theme song, “A Rose for Emily” by The Zombies. This song acts as a final reinforcement of John B.’s peculiarity and enigmatic ways.
Despite how entertaining S-Town is, there were definitely some morally questionable decisions made during its creation. Throughout the podcast, Tyler told Reed about several crimes he committed, but Reed did not report Tyler to the police, nor did Reed try to stop Tyler when Tyler told him that he was going to steal from the McLemore estate. In one instance, Tyler told Reed how he held a man at gunpoint and considered cutting off his fingers. This is a violent crime that definitely should have been reported to the police, but Reed did nothing. Another aspect of Reed’s reporting that was immoral was the fact that he outed John B.’s sexuality to the world. John B. never came out as a gay man to the public during his lifetime, nor did he give Reed permission to reveal his sexuality. Reed ignored John B.’s right to privacy to the point that the entirety of episode six was dedicated to exploring John B.’s sexuality. Also, I do not know that Reed actually had permission to share excerpts from John B.’s manifestos. If he did not have permission, then that is another ethical violation. All of these ethical violations, as well as others not mentioned, have led to a lawsuit posed against Brian Reed.
Despite the messy genre organization and even messier ethics involved in the reporting of S-Town, the podcast is still entertaining, informative, and worth the listen. However, I think the series deserves a trigger warning due to its mentions of depression and suicide, as well as its inappropriate language, including racial and misogynistic slurs.