New Podcast Is Both Curious, Repulsive

S-Town is the to-rave podcast of the month. It comes from the people who make This American Life and the podcast that spawned 100 imitations, Serial. I heard about Serial at some point in the middle of the run, I think. Maybe it was at the end of its first season. I heard many good things from many people, but I never listened to it. Podcasting, developed in 2000, just hasn’t been my thing, because portable tech hasn’t really been my thing. Whenever I heard a podcast, it was through my PC, kind of like the cans-and-string method. Only in the last few weeks have I begun to use a loaner iPad for something it’s actually good at.

So I was ready when I caught word of the new S-Town, which released all seven episodes on March 28. That initial word described a true crime podcast, but S-Town is a different story. (spoilers)

It begins with the wildly colorful, possibly genius John B. McLemore reaching out to Brian Reed about a murder that happened in his home town, Woodstock, Alabama, about which he needed a barrel of venom to describe. Everyone, including himself at times, was a loser, a failure, an idiot, and many more vulgar labels. His old school was Auschwitz. The police were corrupt. The county had one of the highest rates of child abuse and molestation anywhere. At least a couple people asked John why he didn’t move away since he hated the place so much.

John B. can work himself into a fit by thinking of how no one is outraged over countless liberal talking points, and this murder is a prime example. Everyone knows who did it. The man himself has bragged about it. Why doesn’t anyone give a rat’s rear-end?

The story shifts from that question to focus on John B., which isn’t a selling point. He’s a babbling brook of liberal outrage and profanity. He can’t tell Brian about the many flowers and butterflies on his property without worrying that they’re dying off. By episode two, I was already telling him to shut up. Two of the people who may have cared about him the most pushed him away because they couldn’t bear up under the weight of his poisonous worldview.

That’s not to say the man was all bad, despite being a reprobate. He actually encouraged a few people occasionally and tried to help a few friends through hard times. Clearly Brian considered him an interesting human being, not merely a specimen to study and exploit. reporter William Thornton offers this local perspective.

Jeff Dodson, now Woodstock’s mayor, hired McLemore at his nursery because of his proficiency with plants. The arrangement didn’t last long, he said, because McLemore had no business sense and couldn’t adapt.

“John was just about unemployable,” he said. “He was angry at me forever over it. I thought he was a real negative person, but I thought maybe we could get him to use his energy in a positive manner. He was like a very immature kid. He did whatever he wanted to do. He just couldn’t get away from negativity. He used to talk about the town, but he annexed his property into it.”

One remarkable story shows both sides of the man. Tyler is a main character and one of John B’s close friends. He’s a younger man who John took in during a rough patch in his life and helped steer him in a positive direction. When Brian asks if Tyler was the only one John ever helped in this way, he learns there was another young man John supported, who had been running from abuse or some such.  He moved away years ago. John B. describes him as a failure, shacking up with a meth dealer in run-down New York apartment. He says all he ever tried to do for that kid was wasted. Since Brian lives in New York, he looks this guy up, and what he sees couldn’t have been more different than John’s description. The man is married with children to an intelligent women who works at a hospital (I think). No meth. No squalid apartment. The man even says John’s support during that time was the best thing to ever happen to him.

Despite the obvious skill Brian put into S-Town and the many curiosities in the story, the people, and John B. himself, I almost stopped listening twice, once in episode two (the cliff-hanger pulled me back), once again in episode six, when all the questions about John’s sexuality are explored. There are a few minutes in that part I wish I hadn’t heard. It was as repulsive as John’s constant ranting. And I wonder, if the sexual nature of John’s story had not been there, would any of it have come to our ears?

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