@R eview | STown

More masterful work from the folks at This American Life.

If you visit the website of the podcast STown, you’ll notice that the seven-part series is divided into “chapters.” After binge-listening seven hours during the past weekend (kept doing yard work so I could listen guilt-free), I agree that “chapters” is more appropriate than “episodes” as STown flows like a well-crafted story, masterfully told.

First a word of caution. If cussing (and I mean cussing, not cursing) offends you, please stop here and forget the podcast. Okay. You’ve been warned. STown stands for Shit Town, the name given to his hometown by John B. McLemore. The town he’s grown to hate is in Bibb County, Ala., about midway between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. John (or John B) is one of those people who has grown angry with the world, an iconoclast who can’t believe what idiots human beings have become. Unfortunately, he’s smart enough to know it’s true. He’s brilliant on a wide range of topics and is one of the world’s most talented restorers of antique mechanical clocks. But he’s also crazy as a loon and a world class cusser.

Oh, here’s another thing I should disclose (if you’re not one of the 12 regular readers of this blog who already knows), I’m a native of Alabama and have lived in the South all my life. I’ll admit, however, my experience in the South has been more suburban new South “Gardens & Guns” than rural town new South tattoos and Trump. But still, I’ve known a few John B’s in my life. They are unique and engaging while, simultaneously, scarey as hell.

Before sharing more about STown, here’s a flashback to my review of Serial, the podcast that shut down the tech-media “experts” who were writing podcasting’s obituary at the time:

Serial is like a brand new way to experience someone telling me a story that stretches 500 pages and a dozen hours. Except with Serial, “the audiobook” is presented in a way that no audio book I’ve ever experienced has (except, perhaps, the audiobook version of Katharine Graham’s autobiography). Rather than being a murder mystery, Serial is becoming a story about a journalist trying to determine the mystery of whether or not there is a story in the murder. It’s like an author of an audio book is writing the book in real time, sharing with us the pieces that have to come together and the frustrations when they don’t.

Like (I’m guessing) most people, I expected STown to be another Serial, a murder mystery documentary. Developed, written and narrated by a producer of This American Life, Brian Reed (a New Yorker, bless his heart), STown is, according to its digital equivalent of dust jacket notes, “about a man named John who despises his Alabama town and decides to do something about it. John asks Brian to investigate the son of a wealthy family who’s allegedly been bragging that he got away with murder. But then someone else ends up dead, and the search for the truth leads to a nasty feud, a hunt for hidden treasure, and an unearthing of the mysteries of one man’s life.”

The mysteries of STown do involve violence and crimes that are solved as dramatically as in any TV procedural. But STown is more southern gothic than journalist whodunit. It’s Faulkner* meets Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil with a little Rick Bragg and Truman Capote thrown in.

It took three years to produce STown. And while it is “by” Reed, it’s obvious that countless talented people worked on this project.

Every moment spent during those three years is evident.

A hint: Listen through to the very end. It has one of the best-written final paragraphs of any book (er, podcast) I know.

*The song that ends each chapter is titled A Rose for Emily by The Zombies, a reference to the Faulkner short story by the same name. (Full text of the short story.)

  • Don Hodges

    Just finished it, with mixed opinion. I thought it got into invasion-of-privacy territory near the end, but it was a brutally honest look at the flyover South. Maybe enlightening for some, or just confirmation that they can keep flying over.

  • While it is definitely of the Southern gothic tradition, I don’t think it’s intended to be an “honest look at the South.”

    Perhaps I’m wrong (as I am many times), but I think the rural South of the mid 2010s is a backdrop for the story, not the focus of the story.

    To me, the focus is the tale of a uniquely talented artist who is also a troubled genius. Why he hates his home and, ultimately, everyone with whom he comes into contact, is the mystery that propels the story.

    And because his art is, in both a metaphoric and literal way, related to creating and perfecting time, I was impressed (I’ll keep this a non-spoiler version) by the way the story came around to reveal the price that must often be paid to pursue such perfection.

    Also, I’d say there’s nothing in the podcast that should keep someone from visiting Charleston or Nashville or New Orleans or any number of great food and music and art. We are quite friendly.

    All of that said, I’ll admit something: The movie and book Deliverance has kept me out of a canoe in north Georgia for a lifetime.

  • Don Hodges

    What I call the flyover South is not the lively cities but the Deliverance territories (updated with opioid pills, meth, disability-as-manna-from-heaven, etc. “Hillbilly Elegy South” if you will. Yes, there are brilliant and quirky people scattered about but on the whole not very interesting or admirable. The prevailing politics is another whole rant.