(Warning: The following post may be offensive to some due to the nature of the topic. This includes few profanities, brief sexual reference, and podcast spoilers.)
The podcast takes place in Woodstock, Alabama. Though sharing names with the famous—and for some, infamous—summer concert of 1969, these two towns are worlds apart. This Woodstock bears the nickname Sh*t Town (a.k.a. S-Town). Brian Reed, a reporter from This American Life (producers of the widely acclaimed Serial), investigates an alleged murder in the child-molester capital of the world, as noted by the story’s peculiar protagonist John B. McLemore, redneck intellectual with a staggering vocabulary and unfortunate daily bout with chronic depression. His hatred for the town wears on him. He takes a younger man by the name of Tyler under his wing to mentor and guide, sharing advice of what not to do in this rotten town.
John contacts Reed and urges him to make this trek to the deep, deep woods of Alabama to investigate this seemingly covered up homicide—a conspiracy so deep, he speculates the police maybe, just maybe, have something to with it. Though Reed is busy reporting the ills of police departments around the country, he is intrigued and gives in. After months (actually, I believe an entire year) of emailing and talking over the phone, this rambling gentleman—and should I say, genius—and the uncertain Yankee meet. Throughout the duration of the podcast, it turns out the murder actually never occurred. The kid never died. John—infatuated with climate change and fossil fuels becoming more scarce than ever, politicians pulling the wool over the unknowing sheeple’s eyes, railing against hypocritical preachers who say one thing and live another, and overtly pessimistic about the planet’s demise—is strangely calm. Yet he doesn’t find closure.
Meanwhile, the reporter develops a close relationship with John and his surrogate child, Tyler, who has a family of own. Tyler helps to feed and clothe “Momma,” John’s elderly mother. John’s family is Tyler’s and Tyler’s is John’s. John is lonely. He continues, with all profanities and swearing under the sun, to berate himself with insults for not leaving “this town” sooner. He hordes clocks and tools and copious amounts of gold. Everyone in the county knows John is rich. He touts his wealth pridefully but not maliciously. It’s simply a fact. He entrusts his knowledge to those around him…and he knows they’ll never leave. Though with all this wealth and knowledge, living in a dilapidated house with an elderly mother with dementia is tiring. Eventually, after an evening spent with Tyler drinking and building a swing set, John kills himself.
As it turns out, John was quite the skilled chemist and horologist (i.e. the study of time) and clock master. His strange eccentricities entailed gold-plating coins with potassium cyanide, repairing centuries-old clocks without a manual, and constructing mazes and sundials all about his 100-plus acre property. John drank potassium cyanide, ending his misery. It almost seems as if even in his death he was presenting a metaphor. The gold plates are surface-quality. They aren’t refined. Rather, they are facile and only for gazing upon. Likewise, the town is masquerading the ills of perversion, corruption, and suboptimal education with church and quasi-Southern charm. To John, life is mostly sh*t. It’s all rainbows and roses for the fortunate, but for Woodstock, it’s hopeless. Though the podcast began with the investigation of a murder and illicit activity, John’s body would now be the means to expose such vanity.
Though meticulous as anyone could be, he never left a will. He had every intention of gifting his entire estate to Tyler and his brother, Jacob—both of whom embodied the town with all its racist, uneducated, and perverted quirks. With John out of the picture, long lost cousins arrive to collect. Now a heated legal debate arises between Tyler, the cousins, and the law. Brian Reed is no longer investigating a murder. He’s on a treasure hunt.
To spare the details (and for the sake of time), no on ever finds the gold. Tyler trespasses onto John’s property on a weekly basis, but eventually, the cousins file charges and a warrant is issued for his arrest. Now, Tyler is faced with the fact that he may spend the foreseeable future in a cell separated from his wife and children, only to find the gold has most likely been gifted away. The only gold left on the property coats the antique clocks in John’s house and shed. The house is sold and “Momma” will most likely spend her dying days in a nursing home withering away alone. Nevertheless, Reed is intrigued and seeks to know more about John’s early life.
Reed contacts extended family and friends to gain a greater understanding of the bewildered genius. He manages to contact an old friend by the name of Olan. Olan explains the deep, dark despair tormenting John. The two were involved in an intimate yet arms-distant homosexual relationship for years. Olan explained John’s out-of-the-closet experience as well as his, detailing his first homosexual encounters as euphoric. However, neither could openly display their affection towards other men since…well, it’s Alabama. Moreover, it’s Sh*t Town, Alabama. John’s bout with depression preceded his homosexual encounters and desire for a romantic relationship; however, it intensified whenever he started to lash out at friends, isolating himself and leaving himself locked in a shed repairing clocks for hours on end. But what caused this?
When interviewing old friends and colleagues, they reveal a different John—a more tolerable and, frankly, sane John. Things changed about ten years before he died. Reed asks one of John’s former college professors, Bill, about his encounters. He digs out an intricately carved, homemade, gold-plated sundial with a floral design. It is his prized possession. John cared. Eventually, Reed finds fellow clock-enthusiasts who describe John’s fascination with fire-gilding. Fire-gilding is the process of boiling mercury and melted gold in a pot and painting the finished product onto the desired piece—for John, clocks. This process is extremely dangerous. The toxins and carcinogens wafting into his lungs can cause severe brain damage, leading to a debilitation in one’s mental faculties. This disease is known as Mad Hatter’s disease.
One of John’s friends from, I believe, Massachusetts recalled observing John fire-gilding at one point. He knew the effects were hazardous, but he was willing to risk the exposure for once to observe this strenuous yet fascinating process. With no mask or respiration shield for protection, John proceeded to mix the boiling mercury and gold in his unventilated shed. The friend came away chest burning and coughing profusely. He told Reed that John had been doing this dozens of times every year for decades. The signs were starting to mount up.
Reed relayed to listeners the physical effects of mercury poisoning: enlarged brain, congestion of the lungs, and spontaneous vomiting. Furthermore, the psychological effects are frightening: depression, suicidal thoughts, feelings of worthlessness, inability to feel pleasure, lack of self-control (i.e. impulsivity), reclusiveness, and paranoia. John displayed virtually every symptom. Reed contacted a medical professional to verify these effects. He not only verified the list but said it would be easier to list the symptoms John did not display. Though the autopsy did not find any mercury in the blood, it does not discriminate against the fact John had been ingesting these toxic fumes for years. So, it is safe to say without any additional, unmentioned evidence that John was a victim of mercury poisoning, which led to his ultimate demise. These series of unfortunate events aren’t foreign in a world filled with suffering and pain. As an atheist, John knew not where his hope could be found, nor did he care. This sad story of a precocious man living a life that was—and I regrettably say—wasted with trivial goals and minuscule oddities is too common. We hear of great minds who bring their lives to an end after a life of misery and torment (e.g. Ernest Hemingway, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, etc.).
“Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness,’ and again, ‘The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile'” (1 Cor. 3:19).
“If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).
I cannot help, as I write, to remember to sweet lyrics of the old hymn “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less” by Edward Mote (1797-1874).
“My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand.”
Though we, as Christians, fall short daily or, perhaps, may battle bouts of depression, we can rest assure in the saving work of Christ, for “when I am weak, he is strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
At the beginning and end of each podcast, the song “A Rose for Emily” solemnly introduces the listeners to the melancholic life of John B. McLemore and his compatriots in S-Town, Alabama. The song is rather fitting. Here is an excerpt from The Zombies’s rendition of “A Rose for Emily,” the story of a reclusive girl who finds love to only have it taken from her:
“Emily, can’t you see
There’s nothing you can do?
There’s loving everywhere
But none for you.
Her roses are fading now.
She keeps her pride somehow.
That’s all she has protecting her from pain.
And as the years go by,
She will grow old and die.
The roses in her garden fade away,
Not one left for her grave,
Not a rose for Emily.”
In closing, similarly, John grows roses in the gardens around his house. Emily and John both died alone. Their roses grew old with them, and when their lives passed from here to eternity, the roses died as well taking their memories with them to be forgotten forever. I’ll end with 1 Peter 1:24 (ESV):
“All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.”