In the late 1950’s Jack Kent, a well-known and nationally-acclaimed illustrator began writing children’s books, and in 1968, his first book Just Only John was published. Now considered a collectors item, the book is a delightful tale about a four-year-old boy named John, who desperately yearns to be anything but himself. So he visits a witch and obtains a magical concoction that allows him to turn into all sorts of animals, including: a lamb, rabbit, pig, and even at one point a long-bearded, teeny-weeny, little old man. As one can imagine, when he transforms, he is fraught with unexpected dilemmas, but in the end, John discovers an oft-forgotten but essential lesson: Sometimes it’s better to just be yourself. But that’s easier said than done, especially in a small, rural whistle-stop in Alabama. More on John in a minute.
S-Town is the latest binge-worthy podcast, presented by This American Life, the same folks that brought you another celebrated, time-siphoning obsession, Serial. Hosted by producer Brian Reed, the new seven-part series, is just as, if not more all-consuming than it’s predecessor. While I found Season One of Serial to be gripping, entertaining and unquestionably binge-worthy, frankly I wasn’t ever able to connect with its characters and/or its events on a deeply personal level, and therefore, I’m ashamed to admit–I never finished it. I’m sure I’ll get around to it though. But S-Town? Now that’s another story entirely. Both Serial and S-Town rely heavily on a narrator, who takes listeners on a journey, investigating a real-life, whodunnit mystery, which starts out simple, but deliberately and methodically unravels into a labyrinthian narrative. Complete with recorded interviews which are palpable and humanizing, the series is actually fairly straightforward, yet it contains enough false clues, red-herrings and rabbit holes that will have you completely mesmerized, while keeping you guessing after each episode. It’s consummate storytelling in its purest form.
Initially the bones of the series begin as a murder cover-up, but pretty early on, the narrative begins to quickly shift, and while an underlying mystery remains, as do storm clouds of suspicion, the story dramatically alters its course, unearthing an unbelievably bizarre, but earnest and emotionally penetrating story. At the center of it all, is John B. McLemore, an eccentric 47 year old man who lives with his ailing mother, on a sprawling farm, map tacked in the small town of Woodstock, Alabama–population 900–which John affectionately refers to as Shit Town. For years he’s talked about leaving–yet never has. Why? “That informed who he was so much and it mattered to him so much that he never left, and he was so tortured about that,” Reed says. “I think a lot of people have that experience, and it’s an important experience to document.” Despite being a lifelong resident and well-known around town, John is considered an outsider, a black sheep, a weirdo, some would say. His fondness for small town gossip surely conveys normality, but the garden hedgerow maze with 64 permutations he’s constructed on his property is certainly peculiar. Through the interviews we learn John B’s unconventional ways are the talk of the town: there’s faint whisperings he keeps dungeons under his home, and then there’s the gold. Troves of it, supposedly buried in the woods. The company he keeps on occasion, including a small group of racist, bigoted, small-minded individuals, as well as some distant relatives, seem awfully interested in the later, and that’s not all the secrets he’s hiding.
There’s no denying that John is a vexing character, in many ways he’s also a walking contradiction. Upon first hearing his profanity laced musings and conspiracist theories on climate change and the looming collapse of society–which he may have predicted, my immediate thought, other than the fact his voice sounds strangely similar to someone I know, was that the guy is a total sociopath. On one hand he’s arrogant, vile and often crude, and minutes later a sage-like savant in chemistry, botany, and above all horology–a person who studies time–don’t worry I had to look it up too. Part antiquarian, part misanthrope, part Mad Hatter. Enigmatic? Very. Complex? Extremely. A lot like the clocks he meticulously repairs. But you and I have more in common with him than we might realize. While he hasn’t made a lot of true friends or sustained meaningful relationships over the years, he’s amassed quite a cache of secrets, locked away unrealized dreams, buried his doubts, fears, and insecurities–not unlike all of us in many ways. After all, what will your life’s story say about you? Who will tell it? And who’ll want to hear it, or remember it?
The book I mentioned earlier on, John Only John, is one John B. owned, cherished, and even gifted to his friend/mentoree Tyler to read to his kids, hoping they’d adore it and learn its lesson–it’s ironic and incredibly sad John never did, or couldn’t or wouldn’t rather. Or did he? But what about the murder cover-up? What about the gold? You’ll have to listen for yourself to see if they ever found John’s buried fortune.
But maybe, in the end, it was John’s story that was the real treasure all along.
Still, there’s so many unanswered and abiding questions I have about S-Town, and I’m sure after finishing the series, you will too. I honestly didn’t want the podcast to end, because I was pulled into the vortex that is John B’s psyche–and I’m not alone. So that’s why the writers of Funkhouser and I are looking forward to unpacking our thoughts on everything S-Town on an upcoming podcast of our own. We’d like our readers to be a part of it all, so share your thoughts, favorite moments, or lingering conundrums that you have about the series. Simply @ me on Twitter, and we’ll see if we can include them for our discussion.
To learn more about S-Town visit their website at www.stownpodcast.org
“And as the years go by
She will grow old and die
The roses in her garden fade away
Not one left for her grave
Not a rose for Emily…”