Just a week ago, the producers behind hit podcasts “This American Life” and “Serial” released “S-Town,” and as I write this, I have just 17 minutes left to hear. In the roughly six hours of audio I’ve consumed so far, I—along with the more than 10 million others who downloaded this masterpiece—have been transported to the fascinating world of John B. McLemore, a highly eccentric man from Woodstock, Alabama. As my time in it draws to an end, I realize how much the story is going to stick with me long after its narrator utters his final syllable.
The podcast came to be after McLemore contacted journalist Brian Reed with hopes that NPR might be able to uncover the police corruption and lies plaguing his small town—“Shit-town,” he calls it. This sets the scene for a timely, newsworthy account of true crime, but what follows is instead a tale that transforms into something that more closely resembles the digital generation’s answer to William Faulkner.
Steeped in symbolism, mystery, and raw human emotion, this oeuvre has something for everyone to cling to, but personally, the connection between this modern tale and Faulkner’s 1930 short story “A Rose For Emily” struck a chord. I first read the story in an English literature class at the University of South Carolina, where I, a black-clad “Yankee” amongst throngs of pastel-wearing sorority girls, felt like the term Southern Gothic had been coined just for me. I loved how Faulkner depicted the darkness lurking just beneath the Stepford-esque smiles and sunshine. Even more, perhaps, I loved my wacky Southern professor’s pride in Faulkner himself, and the other Southern writers he introduced us to. It inspired me to dive a bit deeper into the culture I was living in and truly appreciate it.
In the podcast, “A Rose For Emily” is, naturally, among the required reading McLemore bestows on Reed in an effort to help the journalist from New York understand Shit-town. It worked, too, I think, because as the podcast progresses, Reed does an amazing job capturing the yin and yang of the South that I always was hyper-aware of in college. Life is slower and simpler, but smaller and more stifling. It’s always more complex than it seems on the surface, and “S-Town” captures that essence to a T—while keeping the listener on the edge of his, or her, seat.