Meaningful Life in Tedious Brevity: The Intricate Message of "S-Town"
Eds. note: The following contains spoilers for the recently released NPR podcast, "S-Town."
"John B. McLemore lives in Shit Town."
This is the email subject that sends a This American Life reporter from the bustle of New York City to Woodstock, Alabama.
And coming from where I do, there was already no doubt in my mind that Woodstock, Alabama was as much of an "S-Town" as John claimed it was at the start of the podcast. Since the election, I’d been trying to educate myself more on the Poor White American, and it seemed as though S-Town was going to dive right into the heart of the “beast” (yes, my Northern bias is showing).
But the story quickly diverts from any illusions of illustrating a monolithic culture among the rural South and instead pigeonholes itself as a detailed portrait of a few individuals from Bibb County. While I have no doubt that I was delivered an exceptional depiction of what a middle aged man may look like in rural Alabama, I found myself admiring this particular character, John, for his witness to his neighbors and his steadfast commitment to what he loved.
Through Brian Reed's masterful storytelling and the larger than life protagonist John B. McLemore, S-Town accomplishes a sort of novel-meets-podcast experience that the medium has yet to encounter. While one may hear the story as a tragic story of one eccentric man's life, I think it can be argued that John B.-- the queer maze-making, clock-fixing, climate-change-ranting middle-aged man from rural Alabama-- gives the listener a model for a life worth living, and that meaning exists even in the finite.
Let’s cut to the twist in the story: in late June 2015, Reed gets a call from Skylar Goodson (a friend of John’s) letting him know that John had committed suicide a few nights before by drinking potassium cyanide. At the age of 49, John took his life in one of the most painful ways possible. So what could we possibly have to learn from him? His labyrinthine life was interrupted abruptly by his own hand (perhaps his “null set” from episode one was a foreshadowing).
Have you ever seen the moment a clock breaks? Neither have I, but many times have I come home to a clock literally frozen in time, hanging on a moment that’s passed long ago. When the police showed up to find John a corpse on his porch, I imagine that what they saw was merely a clock stalled in an instant; an instant where he’d exhausted all of the time he had to give and wanted his life to be finite; finished.
As someone who has erred on the side of melancholy for most of my life, John’s seemingly tragic life story is as uplifting to me as it is disheartening. Every joyful moment on this earth is married to its end. Yet I, like John, crave to honor what is limited.
I think it does John a disservice to consider his life a wholly tragic one and I think Brian Reed does an excellent job of portraying this. Entwined in his life’s brevity were rich relationships, tender care, masterful accomplishment, and a precise (although perhaps dramatically pessimistic) understanding of the world. Reed suggests through reading John’s suicide note “manifesto” at the end of the podcast that John seemed to have considered his life to have been full.
John inhabited himself entirely. In a town--heck, in a world--where individuality is stifled, John indulged his differences. Whether it was his expertise in clock-fixing, his sexuality, his passion about climate change, his atheism, his maze, or his dogs, John was not afraid to follow himself to the end of his longing. In his monotonous small town, he allowed himself to be seen. His hedge maze can even continue to be seen from an aerial view (as some devoted S-Town fans found on Google Maps).
Secondly, John lived a life of witness to those around him. He was willing to proselytize about the things that he believed mattered. He shared his beliefs about climate change, sexuality, race, and global politics (though none would label him a “tactful” messenger). Without his jargon-packed lectures that he’d spew at random, his town may have never heard opinions contradictory to their own. When one gains a certain understanding of the world, it can be easy to want to flee the place that birthed you in search of somewhere more enlightened. John decided to stay in his small town, and while his reasons for that are difficult to grasp, I am thankful that he was willing to bear witness to his neighbors with the mission of broadening their worldviews.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, John was compassionate. John took in stray dogs, calling himself the “local humane society”. John tended to an intricate garden and knew each flora and fauna by name. He took care of his mother even in her old age. He mentored two young men, giving them work, money, and love when they could not find it elsewhere. It seems as though he lived almost entirely to care for other creatures, and the way he loved made a lasting impact on everyone and everything he touched.
“Life is tedious and brief,” reads a sundial inscription that John once references to Brian Reed. Most sundials have these dismal mottos discreetly engraved into them, remarking upon life’s tendency toward transience. And this is how John lived, although that I’d argue that the tedium was fueled by the passionate; in his life’s brevity, he meticulously attended to the gardens all around him. Perhaps that he left these gardens means he believes they could now grow wildly all on their own.
Listeners of S-Town will resonate with the depth and yearning contained within John’s apparent illness; it is by no means something to trivialize. John was rattled with pessimism and grief, and yet in that same vessel grew compassion and a love for beauty. In his wake, I imagine we can admire the life that was lived while simultaneously mourning the ephemerality of the time he had breathing.