Monday, May 22, 2017

Some Thoughts on S-TOWN from an Alabama Gal

Maybe you've heard of S-Town, the podcast presented by Serial and This American Life.

Maybe you've listened to it, or read something about it. Reports say it's been downloaded over 20 million times.

For those who haven't listened to it yet, I will not put any spoilers in this post. I do want to give you some basics, though, and also a little of my reaction to it.

The story is a complex one with a lot of pieces and a lot of social issues. It's a story first and foremost about a middle-aged man named John who lives in what he calls "S*** town" Alabama.

On the map that town is named Woodstock, Alabama, and it's just a hop, skip and a jump from where I live.

Backroads, Alabama
For seven hours, I listened to the podcast while driving Alabama backroads to various school visits. And I was riveted. The story starts out as one thing, then, like a stream that widens into a deep water hole, becomes something else.

You couldn't make up a character as layered and interesting as John B. McLemore. You couldn't conjure the conflict that erupts in this story. At first I was just curious. Later I was mad, heartbroken, disturbed - not necessarily in that order. These are my people. This is my Alabama. This is an uncomfortable story with no tidy ending.

It reminds me of something I heard recently about how the poet lives in that space between beauty and despair. I think John lived in that space. I think we all do. Some of us choose to focus on one, some on the other.

S-TOWN reminds me of another book I read recently called HILLBILLY ELEGY by J.D. Vance. Many of the issues Vance brings to light in Appalachian culture are evident in S-TOWN. The distrust of outsiders, the way people hide their problems/addictions/traumas, the way family/home is everything and how without any good examples/role models, kids have a hard time "getting out."

Brian Reed (producer/reporter/narrator of S-TOWN) didn't know what he was getting himself into when he responded to John's first e-mail. The podcast is as much his story as anyone's. We are with him as he peels back layer after layer. This is good storytelling, y'all. I wish so bad my father was still living so we could talk about this one!

Did I say "mad, heartbroken, disturbed"? Yes. All that. And more. Give it a listen. It's worth your (tedious and brief) time.

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