S Town



Boy, is Brian Reed ever a masterful storyteller. His timing is faultless, and he loves to drop little mini-bombs on you; like the fact that his wife is black; that the Burts now own John B.’s property. Yikes! Didn’t see that one coming!

Brian Reed, This American Life producer, reports the story of John B. McLemore and his hometown of Maycombe, (no not really,) his hometown of Woodstock, Alabama, which John B. affectionately refers to as Shittown.No, this is not Scout’s Maycombe, Alabama, but John B.’s Shittown does share some striking similarities.

What starts off as a could-be murder mystery quickly becomes so much more. It’s the heart-wrenching tale of love and life lost, of real-life people; people much like myself and my family, friends, and community, struggling with real-life circumstances which are defined by our position within our society, our sense of obligation, our convictions.   All set to the tune of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” Reed’s story spins out, detail by detail; it backtracks, it skips ahead, it bombshells the listener much like Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy.

The whole thing seemed so very Faulknerian, Southern Gothic to me. I live among people like this, I know them, I’m familiar with their situations. Seriously, as I was listening to the seven episodes, I kept thinking, “Man, that could seriously have happened in my neighborhood!” I’ve known people such as John B. who hide their sexuality because it’s much easier for everyone to just pretend he’s “just the eccentric type.” I know many people who have the same beliefs as the Burt family, who are racist, misogynistic, “red-necks” and proud of it.

Whatever John’s motivation for doing some of the bizarre, unconventional, heretical, even kinky things he does, Reed manages to present him in a sympathetic way. He even refers to him as Woodstock’s “local Boo Radley.” Reed also has sympathy for John’s good friend Tyler and his family, too, despite their portrayal as straight outta “Deliverance, ” even down to the demented uncle heard parroting Tyler and his mother in the background of the soundtrack.

Reed does the unreliable narrator bit to great success. He shows us John’s “long-lost” relatives, at first only through the eyes of Tyler; as the gold-digging snoopers who show up immediately after John’s suicide, looking for the family fortune and not the least bit concerned about John’s poor mother. Later, we hear the cousin, Rita, tell her side of the story, and it’s arresting how she completely corroborates Tyler’s version of events, but casts them in a completely new viewpoint. Who to believe? It brought to mind Big Little Lies premise of differing viewpoints.

Critics are saying that the ending has an unfinished feel of it, but I like how it just sort of petered out and left lots of loose ends–that’s life. We don’t get pat answers; affairs are left hanging; mysteries are left unanswered, gold left unfound. That’s the way life’ll do ya.