Mimi Jones Hedwig

Writer, Editor, Animal Advocate

Book review blog

S-Town

Posted by mhedwig on July 3, 2017 at 3:05 PM

Highly recommended. Not for the squeamish. Spoiler alert.  S-Town is short for "Shit Town," which is how John B McLemore describes his small Alabama hometown (otherwise known as Woodstock)  to Brian Reed, a radio serial producer. John B, as everyone calls him, is trying to get Brian and crew to come down and investigate a murder, freely confessed to and even bragged about by the murderer, who has never been charged with the crime. 


That lead turns out to be a dead end, as Brian finds out when he travels to S-Town, but the character of John B fascinates him and a friendship grows between them. John B is an amazing character: a world-renowned clock maker and restorer; a lonely manic-depressive; a brilliant student of history and exponent of a radical view of global catastrophe caused by climate change; a gay man who lives with his mother and has never had a happy, lasting love affair; a native son who claims to hate his hometown yet can't leave the land that has been in his family for a century and on which, in fact, he has lavished amazing amounts of time and effort  --  building, for instance, a hedge maze on the property, so large that it can be seen from a satellite. .. And this just begins to describe the many facets of this complex, brilliant, funny, profane man. His voice is striking, with its thick, lazy Southern accent and wide dynamic range, which contrasts vividly with Brian Reed's Yankee diction, clipped and restrained in the style of Ira Glass. 


But at the end of Episode 2 (of 7) a shocking turn of events makes the listener wonder, "Now what?" Specifically (here's the spoiler) John B commits suicide. Nevertheless there is drama and mystery aplenty to come as Brian Reed turns his attention to plumbing John B's character and relationships, and investigating the tragedy of his death and its impact on those closest to him. 


It's a Southern gothic tale to rival the most extravagant fiction, and there are often hilarious moments. But in essence it is the story of a genuine friendship between two men from vastly different worlds. Some critics have accused Brian Reed of voyeurism in his frank disclosure of the dark side of John B's compulsions (some of those revelations did make me uncomfortable, but I accepted them as efforts to fully understand this complex man). Reed has also been charged with  unethical exploitation of someone who never gave his consent to have his life made public in this way (to this point, I took John B's willingness to talk for hours, candidly and in full knowledge that he was being taped, to be the equivalent of consent). But overall I was enthralled by this story and am glad that it was aired. It brought deserved recognition to John B's achievements and incredible range of talents. It might also have the positive effect of making people look at their own offbeat neighbors with more tolerance and compassion. 

Categories: Podcast