Review: Serial’s Southern Gothic follow-up, S-Town

In the first episode of S-Town, the new podcast from the team that brought listeners Serial, the story’s main character hands a copy of William Faulkner’s 1930 short story A Rose for Emily to journalist/narrator Brian Reed. The tale of a hermit in a gossip-filled town who dies alone but for the corpse of a lover she has kept sealed away from prying eyes serves as the thematic undertone for the seven-part podcast. Faulkner’s characters, some of whom are guilty of “confusing time with its mathematical progression,” are reflected in the person of John B. McLemore, the antique horologist at the center of S-Town.

S-Town dropped yesterday, and unlike the 2014 phenomenon that unfolded over the course of three months, all seven of S-Town’s episodes are available at once. Secrecy surrounded the reporting and production of the story, with a brief teaser released two weeks ago hinting at a murder mystery, or perhaps a treasure hunt. S-Town contains elements of both, but neither accurately describes the totality of a tale that is more Southern Gothic nonfiction novel than any sort of true-crime thriller.

The narrative begins with an email from McLemore, a brilliant, eccentric, 40-something man living in Woodstock, Alabama, to This American Life producer Reed. “Something’s happened,” McLemore tells Reed in a follow-up phone call. “I’ve had about enough of Shit Town and the things that go on.” McLemore asks Reed to come down the Woodstock, the titular “Shit Town,” to investigate a murder.

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Once Reed arrives, he quickly begins to doubt that things are exactly as McLemore claimed, and questions whether there is any story there at all. As Reed spends more time in town, however, he is drawn deeper into a story for which a hedgerow maze would seem too blatant a metaphor had McLemore not actually constructed one in his backyard.

The story’s initial murder-mystery plotline arcs through the first two hours before splashing down in the final moments of the second episode, and the ripples from that impact reverberate forward and back through time, touching a cast of characters whom Reed brings to life through skillful narration and diligent reporting as the circles expand.

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After the first big reveal, the pace slows, allowing Reed the chance to pull each narrative thread in a manner that verges on discursive but ultimately holds together. It’s not perfect—I could have done with less focus on a clock metaphor that, at times, felt heavy-handed—but the end result is a story worthy of its literary aspirations.

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S-Town contains explicit mentions of Guy de Maupassant’s The Necklace and Shirley Jackson’s The Renegade, but the central literary motif is Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily. A song of the same name, released by The Zombies in 1968, serves as the podcast’s outro music, layering a melancholy air over the close of each episode.

McLemore’s knowledge of flowers, which he identifies by both common and Latin names, pops up throughout the saga, but it’s not until the later episodes that the song’s haunting refrain, “Her roses are fading now / She keeps her pride somehow / That’s all she has protecting her from pain,” truly connects with the story and slips into narrative cohesion.

The decision to release all seven episodes at once has been likened to the Netflix binge-watch model, but a better comparison is the options one has when picking up a novel. Early reviews of the show have centered on the phrase “Southern Gothic”, and Reed’s real-life exploration of Woodstock certainly fits within the oeuvre of Faulkner’s fictional Yoknapatawpha County.

The literary and auditory connotations aren’t limited just to those explicitly mentioned. Reed’s fly-on-the-wall experience in a club house hidden behind a tattoo parlor evokes Errol Morris’s 1981 documentary Vernon, Florida. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story Berenice, which begins “Misery is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform,” gets a mention. The attitudes and accents of Woodstock’s cast of characters evokes the Southern rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd, even as the only major musical interlude in the story comes from Verdi’s Rigoletto.

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The closest S-Town gets to paralleling Serial is the relationship between its journalist-narrator and the subject at the center of the story. In Serial, Sarah Koenig made herself an audience proxy during her investigations into the murder of Hae Min Lee, and her complicated relationship with Adnan Syed, the man accused of Hae’s murder, became the spine of the program. Koenig, who serves as a producer on S-Town, invited her audience to listen in as she talked through her reporting and confided her doubts and struggles. Her transparency, as well as her obvious fascination with the case, were part of what drew listeners to the story.

Reed’s touch is a bit lighter, but his connection with McLemore, his desire to understand this man, is the driving force of the podcast. The four years Reed spent working on the piece off-and-on, his trips to Woodstock, stays at the Best Western, and phone calls from New York, allow the audience into his process, and make listeners co-pilots as he attempts to navigate the twists and turns of the story.

At nearly seven hours in total, many listeners will likely treat the podcast like the novel its creators intended, parceling it out into chapters and setting it on the bedside table to be picked up the next day. There is something foreign in the passivity of longform audio narrative, lacking the simple tactile motions of pages to turn and the strain of running eyes across a line of text. But if you do go in for a binge-listen, the atmosphere of Woodstock suffuses the experience, transporting you into a tale stretching back to the founding of the county, outlaws and inheritances, and, ultimately, one man’s quest to make meaning of it all.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.