Spoiler alert: Do not read if you haven’t started/finished the podcast S-Town – a seven episodes, six hours long glimpse into one man’s life by the best podcast team in the world. Originally teased as a murder mystery in the South, it quickly becomes something much more. An audio odyssey that ‘reads’ like a Southern Gothic novel, except it’s all true. It’s something that didn’t exist a week ago. It’s something brand new. I loved it.
What curious animals humans are. We can sit and contemplate our own extinction – of the species, of the world – then go right back to the behavior that will cause the collapse. Buy bottled water. Drive cars, fly planes. Maintain a 9-5 in order to secure a dwelling where we only sleep. Barely experience daylight hours. Feel grass between our toes only a handful of times a year. Buy oranges and tomatoes that travel 7,000 miles. Fill the void with consumer goods. Buy a bigger house. Or not. Wages have been stagnated for 40 years. Treat politics like a hobby and sports teams as gods. Science is optional; how do you feel? An eternity of entertainment substituting all the feelings you didn’t get to feel while you were too stressed out, vaguely, under some notion that you weren’t doing life right.
I’m guilty of all of the above, except maybe sports. I mainline celebrity culture, films, podcasts, social media instead. Anything to feel a connection without having to do the hard labor of interacting. We all have something. I don’t have access to an orchard, can’t grow apples to fill my time. Can’t stop buying fruit and vegetables from someone else. So here we are. Stuck in the cycle, while contemplating our demise.
Then some kind of story comes along, strong enough to disrupt the daily hum. When I get moved by something the urge to write becomes overwhelming. On a cosmic level, I have to merge my thoughts and feelings with the experience I just had. Maybe you have a different take on S-town. That’s okay.
John B. McLemore lives in Shittown, Alabama. When we meet John, through reporter Brian Reed’s tender and honest portrayal, it is clear he is suffering from depression. He’s the first to tell you that. He hates his town, where people are ignorant and cruel, and he’s obsessed with climate change and the end of times. Which is fitting because he is also a world-renowned clockmaker. Brian and his podcast team lovingly construct images out of John’s life. It’s serious, Ivy-league writing. They allow John to be all that he is. The contradictions, the ugly, the profound. It’s been a while since our culture has seen the portrait of an actual human being. It’s shocking. It’s crass and beautiful to behold.
Then John kills himself. While the death is artfully hinted at it still takes you by surprise. Reporter Brian’s humane reaction, which he allows you to witness in full, is brave and heartbreaking. Then the puzzle begin – what is the value of a life?
Is it the property you leave behind? The earthly goods? Is it the friends and family you suddenly abandon? Is it the friendships you crafted and emotions you expressed while still alive? Is it your work? What you did for money, or what you did for love? Does it matter that you painstakingly tended a garden maze if no one is willing to continue the work after you are gone?
The podcast touches on all of that. And finally it more or less determines that John B. McLemore, while suffering from depression since childhood and therefore more likely to obsess about the doomsday scenario that is climate change, it is possible that his mental illness was escalated by ingesting mercury vapor when fire-guilding his clocks using century old, madness-inducing techniques.
Case closed. We are free to move on. Only people with actual brain damage would kill themselves over climate change.
So, I don’t know. Maybe this podcast is, in fact, the great American novel of our time. Where the protagonist kills himself to leave his share of resources for future generations (After all, he figures, 50 years is a good run. I’ve had more good days than bad.) And the world responses with a collective shrug. Oh, the clockmaker, they say. His story is sad, poignant, profound, but he was mad as a hatter.