The thing about nonfiction is it rarely ever follows a clean-cut plot structure the way fiction usually does. The stories of real-life events come with dead ends, loose threads, the blurred lines between fact and rumor, and the maddening compulsion to make sense out of the seemingly senseless. I imagine this is what was going through the mind of journalist Brian Reed as he investigated a story that would eventually become probably the best piece of nonfiction you’ll consume this year, S-Town.
S-Town begins with Reed receiving an email tipping him on a murder, rumored to have been committed by the son of a wealthy family from Woodstock, Alabama. This is a bit of a red herring — what you’re in for isn’t your typical hard-boiled murder mystery — but it’s an effective one, acting as the diving board from which we plunge into the podcast’s true depths. What we get is a mind-blowingly thorough piece of investigative journalism that aims to illuminate the enigmatic life and mind of Reed’s tipster John B. McLemore, an antique clock restorer and eccentric genius troubled by what he believes is humankind’s inevitable self-destruction.
McLemore acts as both the central figure and the main propulsive force behind S-Town. He’s the one who in reaching out to read describes his hometown Woodstock as a “s***-town,” effectively setting the stage of the podcast’s narrative: a cruel universe in which anything goes. It’s McLemore’s life and his influence on Reed, who acts as the podcast’s narrator, which sends the journalist on a chase for leads to tie together seemingly disparate narratives and elements, which include but aren’t limited to: a hunt for hidden treasure, McLemore’s fixation on global warming and potential doomsday scenarios, one man’s attempts to move on from his criminal past, and an unexpected suicide. Yeah, it’s a lot. It’s the kind of ruthlessly powerful storytelling you’d expect from a podcast whose title hides a cuss.