A SEVEN HOUR SERVING OF SOUTHERN GOTHIC
On matters of technology I’m a late adapter. I purchased my first IPad two years ago and a laptop a half year back. I have a light presence on Facebook, but don’t tweet or snapchat or yik-yak.
And even on entertainment genres that I find appealing – like audio long-form journalism — I’m not out in front. I found out about Season One of Serial, 12 episodes on a 1999 Baltimore murder case that began in 2014, long after millions of folks had downloaded the story. I gave up after two episodes of Season Two which was devoted to Army deserter and alleged war criminal Bowe Bergdahl, released after five years by the Taliban in exchange for Guantanamo prisoners. I was happy to learn that this second venture by American Public Radio did not live up to the expectations of the devoted listeners who were riveted to the unfolding excavation of a decade-old murder case.
My son, a culture-savvy early adapter, let me know about the latest collaboration from the This American Life team, a seven part series on an eccentric Mississippian named John B. McLemore. The hook was my son’s description of the program as a Southern Gothic tale in the fashion of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt’s 1994 best seller that was made into a movie starring Kevin Spacey in 1997. That reportage is set in atmospheric Savannah, Georgia and showcases some of the town’s many eccentrics: a drag queen, a secretive socialite, a well-connected antique dealer. At the center is the murder of a male prostitute in the home of the antique dealer.
Brian Reed, the correspondent in S-Town, and Berendt are practitioners of “the new journalism,” [a term first coined by Tom Wolfe in the 1973] an approach to the documentation of events that makes use of fictional strategies and unmasks the objectivity of the reporter to reveal a person deeply engaged in the lives of others. Both accounts are driven by the fascination with and need to reveal “dark secrets.”
Reed is summoned by McLemore to Woodstock, Alabama, a town of little more than a thousand people located in Bibb County, 40 miles southwest of Birmingham. McLemore, a listener to National Public Radio, believes that This American Life would be more than interested in the cover-up of a murder committed by the son of one of the town’s prominent citizens. By the third episode we realize that the program is far less interested in the murder case than it is in the eccentric McLemore.
The portrait of McLemore is worth of the price of admission alone. He’s an American original, a backwood’s genius and polymath. Brilliant in chemistry and the other sciences, he drops out of the local university before completing his degree. He is a horologist, a clock repairer who has an international reputation for putting back together damaged timepieces, often fashion his own parts and using ancient but now little used plating and gilding techniques. He’s most proud of a hedge-row maze that he’s built on his 128 farm. His mind is as nimble as his hands; this erudite “hillbilly” is better read in ancient and modern literature than most Americans.
He’s also a crank whose rants are made tolerable by his colorful “southernisms.” He’s pre-occupied with and made dyspeptic by environmental degradation and clahhh-met change; he’s written a lengthy manifesto filled with dire warnings about the future of mankind. He also turns his vitriolic eye on Woodstock, a S(hit)-Town that he thinks is the embodiment of American small-mindedness, venality, and disregard for its local prophet. The unstable mercury that he uses in his restoration of the clocks suggests his own mercurial personality.
Reed spends hundreds of hours in the company of McLemore either at his Woodstock farm or by telephone and e-mail exchanges. But his portrait is just as often informed by the observations of people in the social circles that McLemore moves: the members of the horological community who universally love him; the ambivalent townspeople including a sympathetic town clerk and a tattoo artist who does odd jobs for McLemore; his addlepated mother and rapacious Florida relatives; a gay ex-CIA interpret who lives in Birmingham and with who McLemore spends hours with in phone conversations. [Spoiler alert] Many of these accounts are recorded after McLemore’s death.
Reed is an intrepid reporter, doggedly trying to peel back the layers of the onion to get the essence of his subject and ultimately submitting to the unknowability of the character. He’s like Nick Carraway, quasi-friend and confidant of The Great Gatsby, who while aware of Jay Gatz’s might flaws, defends him against his detractors. He’s like Jerry Thompson, the reporter who is tasked with gathering information for the obituary of Charles Foster Kane. S-Town, like the kaleidoscopic Citizen Kane, is a cascade of voices captured by Reed’s tape recorder and skillfully edited by host Reed and producer Julie Snyder in more than two years of post-production.
Like House of Cards which releases all episodes in a season simultaneously, S-Town was released in its entirety – all seven hour-length episodes – on March 28th. It’s certainly an inducement to binge-listeners. So dole out the pleasurable portions over a few days or weeks or gobble it up in one gluttonous sitting.