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Nipple Rings and Astrolabes in Woodstock, Alabama

Lili Hamlyn

Dir. Brian Reed, 2017
A spoiler-free review







My mother was born and raised in Arkansas, in a smallish town not too far from the Mississippi River. It’s about fifty miles from Dyess, where Jonny Cash was born, and about sixty miles from West Memphis, where Damion Echols, Jason Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin (collectively known as the West Memphis Three) were falsely accused of the 1993 murders of three little boys. It’s an area of rice fields, water moccasins, pig calls, catfish, extraordinary murmurations, and a seemingly infinite supply of Jesus, liquor (despite being a dry county), and eccentricity.  

She’d tell me stories of growing up in the South, always in her rambling, elliptical way, such that you could never remember where it started or how she got there. She recalled the housekeeper who stole a fortune belonging to her employer, a spinster heiress suffering from dementia, by forging cheques to pay various cousins tens of thousands of dollars for mowing the lawn or painting the fence real good. She spoke about the boy from her high school who broke in to the local chicken farm one night and strangled hundreds of birds just for the hell of it. She remembered another boy, now on death row for a series of meth-fueled armed robberies gone wrong, who had only been caught because of a public access TV “cold case” program, looking at his mug shots and commenting that he still looked like that sweet lil’ stoner she used to hang out with. (To me, he was terrifying.) She told me about a whole slew of teenage antics involving wire traps, angel dust, snapping turtles, shot guns, a near-decapitation and a formaldehyde-preserved finger which had been used for a variety of pranks. These kinds of stories––painful, strange, hysterical, macabre and truly gross––have always seemed elemental to the South. To me, it’s always felt like a part of the world where, for want of a more elegant phrase, weird shit happens.

I’m writing all of the above in the hope of explaining just how alluring, as well as oddly comforting, I found S-Town, the new seven-episode podcast from the creators of Serial and This American Life. The series begins with the promise of a murder. Or rather, the possibility that there might have been a murder. Or, more accurately, in the words of John B. McLemore, S-Town’s central figure, “Something has absolutely happened in this town. There’s just too much little crap for something not to have happened.” The basics are as follows: in 2012, Brian Reed, senior producer at This American Life  (now the executive producer and host of S-Town), received an email with the subject line “John B. McLemore is from Shit Town, Alabama.” In the email, John B. (as he is known throughout the series) writes that Kabrahm Burt, son of a prominent local family, has been going around “bragging” about having beaten another local man to death. McLemore believes that the murder has been covered up and asks Reed to investigate. So begins Reed’s involvement with John B. and the town of Woodstock, Alabama (“Shit Town”, or the eponymous “S-Town”).

John B. McLemore is a middle-aged, highly intelligent, tattoo-hating, heavily tattooed, “semi-homosexual” (his words), misanthropic, antiquarian horologist. He pisses in the kitchen sink, constructs intricate astrolabes and sundials (programmed to the specific coordinates of his acreage), writes fifty-page doomsday essays, reads Maupassant, Bataille and Faulkner, practices nineteenth-century electroplating and has created an intricate hedge maze on his land, with sixty-four possible routes. His characteristic and lengthy torrents of vitriol are as likely to be brought on by humanity’s inaction on climate change as by the flavour of his acid reflux medication. Within the space of a few minutes he will, in his delicious molasses-dripping drawl, list Latin names of flora and fauna, discuss complex scientific principles, and despair that “We ain’t nothing but a nation of goddamn chicken-shit, horse-shit, tattle-tale, pissy-ass, whiney, fat, flabby, out of shape, Facebook-looking damn twerp-fest.” He’s a perplexing, frustrating polymath, who is, in spite of his nihilistic worldview and cantankerous disposition, intensely likeable.

In his bid to uncover precisely what has happened in Shit Town, Reed speaks with an expansive cast of John B.’s friends, family and neighbours: John B.’s mother, Mary Grace; Tyler Goodson, a sort of son figure to John; Tyler’s family, including his brother and sister-in-law, Jake and Skyler; Bubba, who co-owns a tattoo shop with Tyler; Faye Gamble, the town clerk; the magnificently-named lawyer, Boozer Downs; shady cousins from Florida; and a string of peripheral characters, the most memorable of which is Tyler’s uncle, Jimmy Hicks. An accident that left a bullet lodged in his brain means that, although Jimmy can follow the conversation of others, his own vocabulary is limited to just a few words. In the background we hear him shout, “Death!”, “Money!” and “God!” It’s remarkable, as well as darkly funny and moving, that in a series comprised of seven hours of audio, Jimmy is able accurately to distill the essence of most conversations down to this thematic triad.

I want to avoid disclosing too much of the plot, as the various tangles of narrative thread that emerge over the course of the series are bizarre, gripping, and, at times, devastating. S-Town touches on themes of mental illness, poverty, homosexuality, climate change, death, our desire or need for meaningful connection, religion, and what it means to spend your life in one particular place. Its more eccentric subplots range from an earnest hunt for buried gold, to a masochistic tattooing and bourbon ritual named “Church”, to someone asking an undertaker to remove the nipples from a corpse so she can have the nipple rings, which might be made of gold, as a “keepsake”. Much of the pleasure of S-Town is derived from surrendering to Reed’s excellent curation of both major and minor plot strands, with the occasional pause to consider: how did we get here?

It’s important to consider the ethical implications of a project such as this, and to acknowledge that Reed is toeing a difficult line. There’s an inevitable voyeurism in the series; we are being given access to the lives, often in excruciating detail, of real people, warts and all (and there are a lot of warts). Yet the series doesn’t descend into what we might call trauma tourism. The level of empathy that Reed affords his subjects is striking and on multiple occasions he gently reminds them of the possible legal implications of discussing certain things on the record. During a conversation with Reed, Tyler reveals a plan to restrain a man, whom he suspects of stealing his granddaddy’s guns, and cut his fingers off, one by one, until the guns are returned. Tyler asks if Reed thinks he’s a bad person, to which Reed responds, “I see you as a complicated, normal person. I disagree with some of your decisions, but you’ve also had a very different life experience than I’ve had.” He (rightly) avoids casting judgment, yet there’s no pretense of objectivity (he calls out racist slurs, expresses shock or sadness, and openly disagrees with his subjects). While listening to the series, it’s striking just how much Reed likes John B., Tyler, and others.

My own experience of Alabama mainly consists of humid summers spent driving through tiny town after tiny town, with names like Brilliant, Arkadelphia, Damascus, Burntout and Empire. Outside the car window, there’s a blur of single-story houses with front porches and screens to keep the mosquitoes out; there are rusty pick-up trucks in overgrown front yards. Driving down obsolete, defaced Main Streets that evoke post-apocalyptic film sets (local commerce having been forced out by strip malls and Walmart superstores), it seems there’s not a huge amount to do besides sit and drink and chew the fat. Woodstock could be one of these towns. It’s tempting to romanticise or aestheticise these places, as we’ve come to know in familiar popular culture depictions ranging from Jack Daniel’s commercials to The Dukes of Hazzard to Forrest Gump (banned in my household growing up). It’s equally tempting to make sweeping sociopolitical generalisations based on voting habits or religious belief or unemployment rates. S-Town defies these easy stereotypes of the South. Reed isn’t offering us a cabinet of human curiosities––small-town oddities, fixed in place, from somewhere forgotten or ignored. Instead, his expert hand allows each voice to reveal itself in all its difficult, messy, vulnerable glory. S-Town leaves us with an intricate, though necessarily incomplete, portrait of John B. McLemore (and his – touchingly, surprisingly, revealingly – far-reaching web of connections), the sort of man who maybe could have got out of his (Shit) town, and maybe should have, but didn’t.


Subscribe to S-Town here.

Lili Hamlyn studied English Literature at Oxford. Her debut collection will be published by Hurst Street Press later in 2017.