With In Cold Blood, Truman Capote invented the non-fiction novel and turbocharged the genre of literary journalism. S-Town, a podcast by the team at Serial and This American Life that dropped online March 28th as seven bingeable “chapters”, has unleashed aural literary journalism that is as masterly in its evocation of place and character as exemplars by Didion, Wolfe and Capote himself.
S-Town had 10 million downloads in the first four days, far surpassing even Serial, and has caused waves in media circles as a new form of ‘novelistic’ audio storytelling; it was a Critics’ Pick of the New Yorker and has been rapturously reviewed by The Atlantic, The New York Times and respected podcasting critic Nicholas Quah in Vulture. It has also been described as “morally indefensible” (The Guardian) for its intrusion into the life of a mentally ill man and panned for breaching privacy, glossing over racism and misrepresenting aspects of gay sexuality.
In order to engage with the debate, it is vital to consider not just the ‘what’ of S-Town, the journalistic content, but also the ‘how’: the art form that is choreographed audio storytelling, which S-Town exemplifies.
Front and centre of S-Town is the mordant, self-destructive genius that is John B. McLemore, a forty-something fixer of antiquarian clocks who is both shaped and shackled by his small Shit Town (S-Town), actually Woodstock, Alabama. Literary journalists can only write about delicious details they unearth; Capote gave us artfully reconstructed scenes and boasted of faithfully recalled dialogue, but S-Town gives us the real deal: we hear first-hand the magnificent rants about climate change, chicanery and ignorance that McElmore delivers with rococo Southern musicality and a stand-up’s timing.
Listen here to how producers Brian Reed and Julie Snyder craft one rant around an operatic aria, delivering a kind of acoustic alchemy that both counterpoints and elevates McElmore’s vitriol.
We ain’t nothin’ but a nation of goddamn, chicken-shit, horse-shit, tattle-tale, pissy-assed, whiney, fat, flabby, out-of-shape, Facebook-lookin’, damn twerk-fest, peekin’ out the windows and snoopin’ around, listenin’ on the cellphones and spyin’ in the peephole and peepin’ in the crack of the goddamn door, listenin’ in the fuckin’ Sheetrock: Mr Putin puh-lease, show some fuckin’ mercy, I mean drop the fuckin’ bomb, won’t you?”
Opera swells in the background to climactic end, then he emits a heavy sigh.
I gotta have me some tea.
To add opera to a landscape of trailer trash, tattoos and “titty-rings” might seem incongruous, but in true literary journalism tradition, it is grounded in interview; Miss Irene Hicks tells Reed in a Blanche DuBois voice when he inquires after her grandson, Tyler, John B.’s hired hand: “I have my medicine and I have my [Andrea] Bocelli.”
In S-Town, journalism meets art. The episodes unfold via evocative scenes, intensive interviewing (perhaps a hundred hours Reed thinks) carefully placed encounters, metaphorical musings by Reed on the “witness marks” left by clock-repairers and the notion of time itself; but all is driven by sound and voice and the unalloyed intimacy of listening, in real time.
Bypassing our bigotry
We meet Tyler via the click, click, click of a chainsaw he’s sharpening, tooth by tooth. Tyler doubles as a tattoo artist whose pop up parlour has a secret Whites Only bar out back. Its misfit denizens are unfazed by a reporter with no camera, only a microphone; Reed records their casual racism and bravado. “Tell ‘em,” one implores.
I’m so fuckin’ fat I don’t care no more. I’m a six-foot, 350 lbs bearded man in a John Deere hat with FEED ME on my belly.
We listen in appalled fascination; audio can bypass our bigotry and suck us in to places where we normally wouldn’t go. As S-Town producer, Julie Snyder, recently told me:
In audio, it’s much easier to connect with the people in the story. You’re hearing their natural way of talking. You hear emotion, it’s not a polished thing. In film… you judge, the way they look, the way they’re dressed, the setting they’re in.
Julie Snyder and Brian Reed of Serial Productions, S-Town. Photo: Elise Bergerson
In this medium, language achieves added force, the poetry of the South laced with the affective power of sound. Tyler’s Uncle Jimmy, speech-damaged after a bullet lodged in his brain, echoes Tyler with strangely beautiful ejaculations reminiscent of Gospel affirmations. “Beacoups and beacoups of stuff,” he sings out, after the murder Reed is investigating at John B.’s request gives way to another, more tragic, death and an unseemly feud about the estate of the deceased.
One thing we don’t hear in S-Town is John B. pissing in the sink, his personal contribution to mitigating global warming by reducing toilet flushing. Right after he tells us about that, we get the mother of all jaw-droppers. Tyler’s sister-in-law rings Reed: John B. has killed himself. While on the phone to the town clerk. By drinking potassium cyanide.
Reed’s shock and grief are real. Like many literary journalists, he has become part of the story. He knows John B. is his subject, not his friend, but he cared about him. Reed’s immersion grows after John B.’s suicide, taking him to S-Town “nine or ten” more times.
John B. asked Reed to come to S-Town to investigate a murder, critics say, not to have his own suicide and life become the focus of the story. But it’s clear even before Reed meets John B. that the “murder” is less important to him than having the ear of a national radio reporter. “We’d end up on the phone for hours, Reed says, “with him going on and on, not just about the murder, but about his life, and his town.”
Socially, intellectually and sexually isolated, John B. yearns for meaningful, non-judgmental contact. He is candid about his depression: he keeps a suicide note on his computer and has emailed the town clerk a list of people to be contacted in the event of his death. His mental illness, it will be suggested by Reed, probably derives from mercury poisoning; he has been ingesting mercury vapour for decades due to “firegilding” and other alchemical operations he practises when mending clocks.
Listening is bearing witness
In my experience as an oral historian, people greatly value being attentively listened to. When mortality looms, the impulse to place something on the record for posterity, to avoid being erased, can deepen. John B. talked openly about his suicide ideation and probably knew he did not have long to live. He reeled Reed into his life because Reed was the ideal person to bear witness: intelligent enough to engage with a swirling canvas from the epic (John B.’s Critical Issues for the Future Manifesto) to the everyday (dogs, takeaway pizza), undeterred by his “virtuosic negativity”, an outsider with no prior relationship with S-Town and a relatively unobtrusive means of recording all he encountered.
It felt as if by sheer force of will, John was opening this portal between us.
Once he stepped through that portal, into the “proleptic decay and decrepitude” John B. described, Reed felt compelled to carry on: not to needlessly invade a life, but to honour the splendid, scabrous, sprawling complexity of the man who chose him as his chronicler.
Brian Reed, host of S-Town, in the Alabama woods. Photo: Andrea Morales
S-Town pioneers a form of aural literary non-fiction in service of what that great Southern writer William Faulkner, from whose pages John B. could have stepped, declared to be the only subject “worth the agony and sweat” of the artist: “the human heart in conflict with itself”. In so doing, it validates, rather than violates, the fierce, flawed life of John B. McElmore.
The other characters also deepen as we explore John B.’s life: is Tyler (who at 25 has four kids by four women) John B.’s surrogate son or the object of thwarted desire? Tyler’s would-be eulogy for John B. is touching and frank:
Whenever I left him there, he’d say, “I love you man.” Every time. And I’d say, “I love you, too, John B.” And sometimes he’d say, “Just because I say I love you, don’t mean I’m trying to get up your butt or anything.” And I said, “I know John B. God damn.” Because he knew, I mean, he mighta had a little sugar in his tank.
S-Town validates, rather than violates, the fierce, flawed life of John B. McElmore
In its treatment of John B.’s sexuality, S-Town treads on dangerous ground. A self-described “semi-homosexual”, he has had few and mostly unfulfilling relationships. Chapter Six, devoted to this, opens with John B. uncharacteristically reticent. Off the record, he tells Reed about a relationship with a married man. Reed later interviews the man, though does not play the tape; he justifies including these and other details because two others had confirmed them on the record and because John B. is by now, in his own view, “wormdirt”. However, by mentioning that the man once worked for John B, Reed does risk making listeners participate “in the unwitting outing of one queer man over the dead body of another”, as an insightful Vox article suggested.
The final chapter provides disturbing detail on what John B. called his “church” ritual with Tyler, where “Wild Turkey is the Holy Water… the tattoo needles are the reliquaries”. John B. describes church as getting “drunk as hell in the back room”, talking about everything from life and death to black holes and quarks. Tyler reveals, somewhat uncomfortably, that it involved increasingly painful tattooing that gave John B. “an endorphin high”. John B. got “addicted”, says Tyler, “like a damn dope fiend”. Some critics – ironically – go into graphic detail to argue that including this element crosses an ethical line. It is shocking, certainly. But the way it unfolds in the inflected voices of Tyler, Reed and John B., the listener can only empathise with John B. and appreciate how truly anguished he must have been to crave this momentary expunging of mental pain. It is a vital part of seeking to understand the man. And that was Reed’s simple, profound purpose.
I think it’s worthwhile trying to understand another person.
The series ends up as a vivid, engrossing portrayal of a community. It dodges the sociology of its rampant racism, but provides insights into the “fuck it” philosophy of the disenfranchised, self-identifying white trash who would shock the world by helping Trump get elected.
Things that make them human, you relate to that … There is nuance, there isn’t a monolithic way that certain people think, the Republicans think this way and Democrats think that way.
As Uncle Jimmy would say, Amen to that.
An abridged version of this article was published in The Conversation, 27 April 2017, as ‘S-Town Invites Empathy Not Voyeurism”.