In the Barrelhouse Television Workshop, writers look at the way we tell stories across media, the way those "writer moves" work, and why they may or may not work in certain situations. Here, we're adapting the "Television Workshop" format to discuss S-Town, the new podcast from the producers of This American Life and Serial.
Our conversation was moderated by Barrelhouse Online Editor Erin Fitzgerald.
D. Gilson is the author of I Will Say This Exactly One Time: Essays (Sibling Rivalry, 2015); Crush with Will Stockton (Punctum Books, 2014); and Brit Lit (Sibling Rivalry, 2013). This fall he will begin as an Assistant Professor of English at Texas Tech University. Find D. at dgilson.com.
Brittany Hailer has taught creative writing classes at the Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House as part of the Words Without Walls program. Her work has appeared in The Fairy Tale Review, Hobart, HEArt Online, and elsewhere. She is the Voices Unlocked writer for PublicSource and MFA program assistant at Chatham University. Read her work at BrittanyHailer.com
Dave Housley is a Barrelhouse Editor and the author of four collections of short fiction, most recently Massive Cleansing Fire, which was released in 2017 by Outpost 19.
Jared Yates Sexton is a writer, academic, and political correspondent whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, Salon, and literary journals around the world. He's a regular guest on television, radio, and podcasts, and the author of three collections of short fiction and the forthcoming political book The People Are Going To Rise Like The Waters Upon Your Shore from Counterpoint Press. Currently he serves as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing in the Department of Writing & Linguistics at Georgia Southern University.
Sarah Shotland is the author of the novel Junkette, and a playwright whose work has been produced widely nationally and internationally. She is the co-founder of Words Without Walls, which brings creative writing classes to prisons, jails, and rehab centers in Pittsburgh, and teaches in Chatham University's MFA program..
Sarah Sweeney is the author of the essay collection Tell Me If You’re Lying (Barrelhouse Books, 2016). Her poems and essays have appeared in Catapult, Oxford American, Barrelhouse, Greensboro Review, Cimarron Review, Lumina, Quarterly West, PANK, and others. She works as a freelance writer. Find her on the web at www.sarah-sweeney.com and on Twitter at @loosegringa.
Erin Fitzgerald: It’s not really possible to talk about S-town without talking about its setting. Both in the physical world, and in how its people relate to each other, and how those two aspects work together. (Also: Raise your hand if you went and looked for the maze on Google.)
Dave Housley: I’m assuming that if we talk about this the way we would talk about a story or an essay (and that’s kind of what we’re doing here), then setting and place are going to be a big part of that discussion. I think one of the things the show does really well is create a full, three dimensional sense of the place of Bibb County and especially John B’s conflicted relationship with that place. It changes as we move through the show and get to know more of the people in that place and what their lives are like. It changes as Brian spends more time there and gets to know John and the other people.
It’s one of the things that changed for me as I listened to more episodes and the story became fuller and more three dimensional. At first (see my answer to the question about ep 2) I was really worried that what we were getting and would be getting was the “Coastal Elite Has Interesting Experience with the Rural Americans” story, or the “Rural American also Smart and Complicated” story. The thing I came to appreciate, as somebody who grew up in a rural place and currently lives in a small liberal bubble in the middle of Pennsylvania, is that over time the show wound up depicting the complicated south, the complicated rural people and their complicated history in this complicated place.
Sarah Shotland: I also agree that the show ultimately did a fair job of portraying a complicated Southern place. I’m originally from Dallas and then lived in New Orleans, so I’m still a little annoyed that the Southern spotlight is still largely put on the rural South. I’m mostly annoyed by this because people above the Mason-Dixon line often ask me if I grew up riding horses to school. (Dallas is a city of 7 million people, all of whom drive cars, if you’re keeping score.) That said, this felt like an incredibly realistic portrayal of some Southern places I’ve had the misfortune to visit. I say misfortune, because I really related to John B and *know* that if I lived there I’d be the first to be calling it shit town.
Beyond my personal annoyance, here are some other place-y things I’ve been thinking about:
- I thought the portrait of place was interesting post-Trump-election. We’ve been hearing so much about the disenfranchised white voter, the forgotten America. This town felt very much like part of this idea that exists outside of Appalachia and the rust belt.
- I think the women of S-Town are great representations of Southern women, which added to the complexity of the place. There aren’t many, but when they show up, they remind me of the Southern women I know. The aunt from Florida who unabashedly says “Hell yes I told him to shut the fuck up,” and “I thought if he called him mama again I would hurt someone.” There’s such a lingering stereotype of the demure belle, and this aggressive defense of herself felt refreshing. Then there was the woman who John had gone into business with, who seemed like a pretty typical American working woman. Connected, ambitious, with-it. And Mama. Mama really resonated with me in the moment she said Brian could stay for dinner if he didn’t mind eating like poor people. Meanwhile, everyone in town knows they have a bunch of money and property. This is so accurate in my experience of rural Southern attitudes toward money. The only thing worse than being rich is admitting you’re rich. I’m so glad we didn’t have any Southern women who felt really stereotypical to me (which I suppose is easier when you’re dealing with real-live-human-beings.)
Jared Yates Sexton: I was really overwhelmed with how much S-Town reminded me of where I’m from: Linton, Indiana. The people, the culture, all of it, hit so close to home. There’s a bizarre subculture to it all, the way so many of these people are resigned but also simmering with anger and bitterness, the personal feuds and how they’re conducted. I had this bizarre sense of false nostalgia the entire time, like I’d just gone home and been sucked into some kind of odd situation, which is always the case when I go and stay too long. There are all these things that have happened there, in Linton, including the murder of a self-published author who worked in a metal teepee by her son, the abduction, torture, and eventual murder of my neighbor when I was a kid. Not to mention the neverending cycle of dysfunctional relationships that kick off blood feuds between families. It felt so familiar and sad and I couldn’t believe a podcast, of all things, was able to bring that to life.
Erin Fitzgerald: What’s problematic here? (This really can come up anywhere in all of this, but it does need to get talked about, I think.)
Dave Housley: I’m afraid I’m going to come off as not liking the show, because I did like it a lot, but it also pushed a few buttons for me. One is that I really felt like the first two episodes were kind of a head fake, a feint in the direction of what the people involved knew had worked so well in Serial. So it starts off as this true crime thing and it really stays in that direction for almost two full episodes until it morphs into what it’s going to be, which is a character study of this fascinating person in this place that’s full of contradictions for him and for the listener. But...two episodes of this kind of winky Serial 2.0 thing really feels like a lot to me.
I’m curious, actually, what the folks here who are accomplished nonfiction writers think about that, because I’m not one of those (accomplished nonfiction writer) and I wonder if my reaction has something to do with me being really used to writing and breaking down short fiction, where that kind of withholding would seem, to me, at least, to be pretty disingenuous, and any spinning wheels, especially at the beginning of a story, is just immediately cut because our inclination is always to get to the story part of the story as soon as possible. In this one, they very clearly delayed getting into the story part of the story for more than ¼ of the story, and that’s a lot.
I also can’t get it out of my mind that they know all of this as they’re producing the show -- they know where it’s going, that all of this supposed murder supposed investigating is being put here for a very specific storytelling -- or, at my most cynical moments, marketing -- purpose, and there’s a part of me that feels like we got played there for two hours, feeling those dormant Serial muscles twitch again. There’s a part of me where my Marketing-Radar is going off saying “you’ve been marketed.” I’ll be interested to hear what others thought of that, because although that’s my honest reaction, I feel like it’s a little strong and I haven’t heard many others who feel the same way.
Sarah Sweeney: I didn’t mind the head fake-ness Dave pointed out. As someone who also works as a journalist, this is what’s fascinating--and often so rewarding--about pursuing a story: that is can change direction and morph into something else entirely. You want to be surprised, or else what’s the point? I was once hired to interview a rock star, and I found him on his deathbed in a hotel in Southern California talking about aliens and life. So radically veering elsewhere was what I found most thrilling about S-town. It felt authentic to the investigative process. And because I’ve seen my fair share of Datelines, I was also ready for a big twist--or five. I didn’t feel like Brian or the producers did anything disingenuous by giving us the Serial 2.0/murder plotline. They did play us, but that’s because Brian got played too--he went down there looking to investigate a murder only to find out there was no murder and the story was much weirder and more fascinating. But the murder plotline sets John B up as this arcane small town whistle-blower. We needed it to understand him.
D. Gilson: Not to be contrarian to Dave, who shares my love of Arby’s, but I ADORE the head fake-ness. Partially, this adoration is in agreement with Sarah, who points out that in journalism (and S-Town is certainly literary audio journalism?) the element of surprise that might lead interviewer, interviewee, and audience in an unexpected direction is rewarding. Though this element of surprise isn’t new (it’s by now cliche to quote Robert Frost arguing “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”). To Dave’s point, however, I do wonder if there’s something specific about the audio storytelling form (and especially from the uber control-freakishness folks stereotyped in public radio) that makes the surprise here feel manipulative?
Dave Housley: I was wondering that same thing, D! Maybe something about the intimacy of that feeling -- Brian is in my ears! -- that made me feel like in this case it was more manipulative. Sarah’s right, of course, that it’s really a standard storytelling/narrative Writer Move so even while I was feeling that way, I was kind of aware that it was maybe not a legit criticism of the show. Also I think the idea of production played into it -- that it’s not just writing and narration but a whole lot of people working with lots of different elements to tell this story.
Sarah Shotland: I also didn’t mind the “head fake.” I agree with Dave, that as a fiction writer I don’t think I’d ever do this in a short story, or even in a longer narrative. It would feel, as he put it, manipulative. Or maybe even simpler than that: confused. (“You have two stories here,” I can hear a fiction workshop deciding.) But in CNF, it feels much more authentic to the experience of “real” life. You think you’re doing one thing-you realize it’s actually something different-you get a tattoo and drink some whiskey-someone dies and oh, shit, now you’re in deep. One other thing that occurred to me as I read everyone’s comments is that while I understand we’re discussing this as though it’s a kind of writing, my relationship to podcasts is much closer to my relationship with television than it is to my relationship with journalism or essays. I go to podcasts largely to be entertained, and generally listen while I’m doing something else (mostly the treadmill). Because of that, I engage with them in a very different way than I do with a book or essay. For example, although I was riveted by S-Town, I was engaging with it while I was running, so I’m using it as a means to an end (I can only run if I’m distracted from my own hatred of running). That may pose some challenges in terms of the form and how we’re “reading” it or what standards we’re holding it to. In terms of simple entertainment, I thought S-Town was almost a perfect marriage of what I love about Serial (suspense and intrigue) and This American Life (nerding-out-on-obscure-America).
In terms of what’s problematic about the piece, I’m feeling it more now that we’re discussing it. And that problem for me is the issue of despair. I’ve been hearing these pieces lately about “deaths of despair,” which is in reference to the rising numbers of white, middle-aged deaths from addiction and suicide. While I understand that in some ways it’s our job as writers to examine and analyze them, it feels slightly weird to talk about the problems of story structure or marketing when this story is about a man who was in deep despair. The last episodes, in particular, put this into a pretty stark light. He’s getting tattooed with empty needles--that’s some real junkie shit. I’ve known junkies who would just shoot up with water after they got clean because they were so addicted to the ritual of needles and the attachment to pain. He’s piercing and re-piercing his nipples and calling it his church. That’s some *real* junkie shit. And I say junkie with no judgment. It’s the part of the story I connected with the most. This deep, deep longing to disappear, and yet, he’s doing it in communion with other people. He calls a reporter from New York, he talks for hours on end. He’s deep in the addiction paradox of wanting so desperately to be known, and so desperately to detach. Dave brought up his hesitation with the “Coastal elite encounters rural America” problem, and while that didn’t happen, there was a bit of “Coastal elite discovers despair and makes it into art” going on. That feels a little uncomfortable to me. It doesn’t feel unethical, per se. I don’t think it should stop a writer or reporter from following the story, but it does feel like in polishing the story and packaging it, we distance ourselves from the despair, which puts us in danger of diminishing it.
EDIT: I came back to slightly edit this because I’ve been thinking about it all weekend. I think my problem was actually that we learn about the most disturbing parts of the story at the end. It’s that final episode that gives us all the information about the piercing and the tattooing and the going to church. It felt a little messed up that we get all that at the very end. It seems like it would be a really different story if that information came in Episode 4 or 5, and then the last episode included Olin’s monologue about the truck and wanting to kiss his belly. Getting that most desperate part of him last makes it feel icky. I don’t think I have anything smarter to say than icky right now. :)
Jared Yates Sexton: So, the head-fake was something I struggled with, but there was also something kind of amazing about that change from the murder-mystery to the profile of John, who, the first time I heard him speak, I was instantly fascinated with. The way they edited this thing, the way they didn’t completely tip their hats to the fact that this was going to be about John’s life and what an anomaly he was, kind of let me find the thread organically and I really dug that.
Brittany Hailer: RE: Head-fake. So, I’ve been interviewing people who have been incarcerated and/or work with incarcerated persons for a couple of months now. On of my subjects was murdered four days after interviewing him. Because the profile was originally about how he was trying to better himself and what his relationship was like with his teacher--we kept the format of the story. I went back and interviewed the subject’s teacher after his death, then added the murder and it’s aftermath to the already written piece.I am not sure how else we could have written the story, because that is how it happened. That’s how life happens. That’s how the story unfolds. I understand that Brian produced this thing knowing it was going to twist and turn and shock its audience. (I was brushing my teeth when I found out that John B. had killed himself and nearly choked). I don’t know if it's really a matter of ethics or morality--It’s good storytelling. I also honestly think John B. did this to shock his inevitable audience.
I do agree with Sarah about the self-harm and leaving the darkest revelation about John’s psyche for the end. Why is that? Why did they save that for the end? Were they afraid listeners would be turned off if they realized just how fucked up this guy was? His voice and humor is so lively (though what he fixates on is depressing and bleak). He carries the podcast, obviously. If we were given this information about our tragic hero earlier, would we have felt to “icky” to continue?
One more thing: If I ever die and someone I met online does an interview in a hotel room about me--I am telling everyone in the world right now, everything they say is bullshit. That’s the section of the podcast that actually made me feel the most uncomfortable: John never mentioned this man to anyone. I realize that they knew each other for a very long time and the interview opened up this tragic John-Didn’t-Have-Country-Song-Love, but still, when listening, I really felt like I was invading. Like I was listening to Bobby Brown discuss Whitney’s favorite underwear color.
CONT: Now that I read everything, I realize I am the only person that finds Olin’s inclusion uncomfortable.
Sarah Shotland: I hadn’t thought of what Brittney brings up: the fact that maybe listeners would be turned off by getting the darker information before the end.
Erin Fitzgerald: Discuss episode 2! (A writing workshop would spend half an hour on foreshadowing, natch.)
Dave Housley: Again, I think I’m going to come off as a real grump here, because 2 was the episode I liked the least. I think what most of us will talk about is the big reveal at the end, which really turns the show around and points it toward its eventual real direction. But...for me, episode 2 was really brushing right up against the stereotype of NPR Coastal Elite Reporter Sent into Trump Country to Talk to the Locals. Putting all of that in sarcastic capital letters because I’m so sick of those stories and have been since before the election. There were times when it felt to me like he was on a safari, reporting about these most fascinating creatures and all in the most NPR-ish possible way (I am in the tattoo parlor’s secret room...I am smoking a....oh my goodness this gentleman just…). Halfway though I was thinking, is this an entire podcast about how people in small towns in the south can have thick accents and still be complicated people? Is this a super popular podcast about cultural tourism?
I don’t think I would have listened to another episode if it hadn’t made that turn at the end. It DOES make that turn, though, and for me that’s when I really started to dig the show because it became clear that it was going to be about John B, who was the most interesting part of the first two episodes and was clearly just a fascinating, tragic, funny, crazy, complicated, weird, brilliant person. As you can tell, I’m a real grump about those first two episodes….
Jared Yates Sexton: I’m actually with you on this one, Dave. There’s a definite sense, in all these “Trips to Trump Country” that come from these metropolitan sources that feels like a trip to the zoo, which definitely gets my roots buzzing and has me raise my antennae. The end was heartbreaking in a way that made me click on episode three instantly, but the tone was just a little bit on the uncomfortable side.
Erin Fitzgerald: Genre! You could say it’s pretty fluid (coming-of-age, legal thriller, true crime, longform CNF, etc etc). Does the form help/hinder? Also: Is this podcast truly like no other?
D. Gilson: I think the longform nonfiction podcast helps this story so much! It’s segmented, which makes the jumps in point of view plausible, along with the shifting rabbit holes of focus (John B. to the town clerk to the cousins to the mother to the lover to the clocks etc. etc.).
I’m teaching a creative nonfiction class this semester (Creative Nonfiction: The Podcast), where students both study the form and make their own podcasts. S-Town coming to us was a pleasant surprise, to say the least, because to me it is truly like no other podcast. I’ll go out on a limb here and think aloud about why that might be: largely because it is both southern and queer. And by queer, I mean it’s not stereotypically “gay.” First of all, we never know if John B. is gay in any normative sense that we have (he won’t be appearing on any Ryan Murphy television show anytime soon). It’s a type of queerness that is connected to both sexuality (Tyler does tell us, lovingly, that John “has a little sugar in his tank”) and the place of the deep south. So it’s queer in both sex (which oozes out in all types of way throughout the chapters) and in that it could not have taken place anywhere else. In this way, it reminds me of one of the most famous southern queers, Truman Capote. That voice, those tangents, that passion, that simultaneous love and disdain for the south itself... John B. is joining Capote in a long lineage of us queers with a lot of feelings about everything and nothing all at once. I haven’t seen another podcast that captures that unique queerness with so much compassion, empathy, and honesty.
Sarah Sweeney: I love D. Gilson’s answer, and I’ll say that the podcast was also the perfect avenue for this story because we needed to hear these people -- the accents, of course, but really all of it. Hearing their voices told us as much about their personalities as anything they said. I’m thinking of Tyler’s gruff confusion to the way his voice softened to childlike and searching when talking about John. Of course, I loved the scathing preacher’s voice John B assumed when he was soapboxing about the world -- it was almost pentecostal -- to the way he could be so daintily exasperated, using the same southern expressions as my mother. Those expressions can often seem gimmicky on paper, but are indisputably authentic when you hear them coming from John B’s lips.
Sarah Shotland: I’d add Tennessee Williams to D’s list of Southern queers this podcast channels.
Brittany Hailer: John B and Capote drinking whiskey in the sky is my new favorite thing to dream about. (And maybe Frank Underwood is there, too. I am assuming he’s going to die at some point)
Erin Fitzgerald: Binging! What do you think S-Town gained or lost from the decision to drop all 7 episodes at the same time?
Sarah Shotland: I love that we live in the age of the binge. I think it raises the production value of both television and podcasts in terms of unified thinking from the producers and writers. I have friends who write on television shows, and they say their job has gotten harder (and better) because now they can get away with less since people remember all the details episode-to-episode. Continuity, resolution, believability all mean more. It means that writers really have to know where they’re going, which generally means where they start is better.
Dave Housley: I thought this was a really good and important decision. I’m guessing it was a hard one to make, because Serial is really the precedent for S-Town, and a lot of the same people were involved, obviously, and part of the whole Serial phenomenon was the way it rolled out weekly and built and went viral. I feel like they gave up part of that when they decided to drop them all at once, but that decision also really suited the subject material, which wasn’t a true crime twist-by-twist caper and more of a character study.
Sarah Shotland: This is just my curiosity, not something for the blog--do people have opinions or know facts about how much of an audience binges even if they’re released episode by episode. For example, I binged Serial rather than listen episode-by-episode, and I wonder if that makes any difference in the decision of the production team.
Dave Housley: I wonder about that, too! I think the give and take is that you don’t get that episode by episode buzz, people live tweeting an episode, that weekly swell that we got with Serial. But you maybe get that all at once? You maybe get people like us being able to try to break down certain elements because we binged it and we’re through it and we can talk about it and process it as a whole piece of art. It’s an interesting question that I don’t think was a Thing until a few years ago. I don’t think there’s a “right” way to do that, but I do think the dump helped the way we experienced it, and our ability to talk about it now, in this way. In my real job I do internet strategy so I’m interested in this question just in general.
Jared Yates Sexton: I admit, I’m kind of a contrarian when it comes to all forms popular culture, so I’m always late to the party because I can’t get over myself in terms of actually digesting things that have caught fire. S-Town came late for me, but I have to admit, I love the feeling of binging on these things. What people don’t really talk about, I think, when it comes to podcast is that these serialized forms are just audiobooks with more immersive production. I get after these things in chunks because I’m driving across country or looking for something to listen to while working on larger projects. Not all hit that mark - obviously Serial did - but this was as addictive of a podcast as I’ve ever heard.
Brittany Hailer: I saw an interview with Kevin Spacey at some point comparing binge watching to reading a novel. Some people read books chapter by chapter, some are so engrossed they read the book all in one sitting. Kevin Spacey thinks that’s our right and I agree with Kevin Spacey.
I think giving audiences what they want is the smartest thing Netflix has done. Shows like House of Cards are the film industry’s largest competitor. I think S-Town is tapping into that and making podcasts a cultural phenomenon and perhaps appealing to people who don’t normally listen to the same podcast week to week. I listened to S-Town in one weekend because I COULD NOT STOP. Sure, we kind of miss out on the cultural, “Today is S-Town day!” but then again, we all get to type into this Google doc because we consumed the thing as quickly as we could. I think when you make something bingeable, you create arcs and episodes much like a good book. You’re less worried about getting people to tune in every week. You allow characters to slowly build over time. You’re not packing all this exposition into each episode for new people tuning in. Cliff hangers feel natural and not forced. It just feels like a book.
Sarah Shotland: Wow, I also agree with Kevin Spacey. And I much prefer being able to read a book in one sitting.
Erin Fitzgerald: Characters! Even though these are real people, of course. How does likability work/not work?
Dave Housley: I thought this was one of the most interesting parts of the show, because your point of view about the characters really changes. Or maybe it changes with Brian’s point of view, since the narration of the story really works through his POV. Or, I think the way you feel about most of the side characters changes. John B is just kind of this bright crazy light from the first time you hear his voice, and the way I felt about him really never changed -- you learn to feel differently after his death, which can have that effect on anybody, but as a character, my reaction to him is the same throughout.
The rest of them are changed throughout (I guess the cynical way to look at that is that the producers had enough material to mold them in this way and that as it suited the storytelling, but I really didn’t feel that as I listened). Tyler is in that tattoo studio/safari scene and that’s before we really learn that he’s got this really deep relationship with John B. I think the way I regarded Tyler changed on an episode by episode basis. The Florida cousins have a real arc, starting off as total money-stealing, hospital-driving-by villians, and then ending up as very sympathetic characters who are also giving us a totally different viewpoint into some of the other characters. Also they kind of gave me a different viewpoint on Brian, who had been our eyes and ears and, we learn, maybe had not been the most clear lens with regard to this place and these people.
I thought that was one of the things that really made S-Town work -- there’s an arc, or several smaller arcs, and in their own ways each of these characters was it’s own little mystery to be solved and also part of the larger story of John B.
Also I just have to say: love love love the clock guys. I really could have done with a few more episodes about those guys and their work and John’s vaunted place in that super interesting, very specific, certainly disappearing world.
Sarah Sweeney: I had more of a personal take. Streaming S-town was like being transported back in time to my family holidays and get-togethers in North Carolina. On the outset, everyone seems pretty agreeable; then the moonshine arrives, and suddenly some folks are ready to reveal themselves as a sexist, racist jerk.
I really felt like I really knew S-town's people--because I do. They're my family members and they're people I know from back home. When Tyler locked that guy in the shed and threatened to chop off his fingers, it scared me that I currently know a few people who also believe that's a reasonable way of going about things.
I didn't particularly like any of S-town's characters. Yes, they are 'complicated,' which just seems like a facile way to gloss over bad behavior from white men, like how Tyler is prone to violence, and John B himself was racist and sexist. That Tyler consented to lashing John B, and that John B requested it, was one of S-town's most disturbing moments for me.
Sarah Shotland: I agree with Sarah #1 on all these points. And I’ll add there was an intimacy between John B and Tyler that was painful and poignant, and an intimacy between John B and Olin that was equally heartbreaking to me.
Jared Yates Sexton: I’m in absolute agreement. This felt like home and I couldn’t have asked for a better vehicle to get that experience, though I will say that I wish I could have gotten more in regards to the characters. Maybe it would have lengthened the podcast, but I could have used a lot more exploration into Tyler’s life, the cousins, the veteran at the end who had had that ill-fated “romance” with John. I wanted so much more so badly.
Erin Fitzgerald: Point of view thoughts. What’s your take on Brian, and on the S-town production team’s decisions?
D. Gilson: Brian is one of the best narrators (though he becomes a character in and of himself, which is a good thing, I think) public radio has ever produced. He’s empathetic without being dishonest or manipulative. When he finds out at the end of episode 2 (an episode I otherwise disliked) John B. killed himself, his reaction is guttural, reaching through the headphones and wrenching straight to the gut of the listener (I’m being dramatic, but it’s one of the most honestly heartfelt moments in radio I’ve experienced). Where Brian’s affective prowess works most effectively for me is in my favorite episode, chapter 6, which centers on the very queer friendship between John B. and Olin Long. Brian, who longs for John B. to have that country music, Mississippi River type of love Sarah speaks to as well, explores John and Olin’s relationship with an ethics of care I’ve rarely seen any journalist or writer take when telling the story of someone else (perhaps, especially and pleasantly surprising to me since Brian is neither a gay man, nor a woman). He’s sweet (to use a southern-ism) without losing his generative curiosity that is driving, along with John B.’s irresistible personality, the podcast itself.
Dave Housley: One of the moments that really stayed with me is at the end of episode 2 when Brian is on the phone with Skylar (spelling?). I agree with D that it’s a really affecting moment -- I had a big old lump in my throat on the stupid YMCA elliptical machine on a Saturday morning. One thing that scene does is really suck Brian into the story. It’s just after she’s broken the news about the suicide and he’s reticent, not really sure where he fits into the lives of John and Tyler and Skylar and Bibb County. He’s gotten involved but he’s still a reporter and he’s standing in New York somewhere and had the foresight to hit the record button before they started talking. He says something to the effect of “I’m not sure where I fit in this,” kind of wondering if he “deserves” to go to the funeral, I thought, or if he would be welcome, or something like that. She says something really lovely, along the lines of “if you weren’t important enough I wouldn’t have called.” In that moment I think he kind of gets invited in through this doorway and he’s really a part of the world of Bibb County from there. (I also wish I was smart enough to make those kinds of things happen in a short story because it really works and I’m not.).
Sarah Shotland: I totally agree with Dave that the moment when Skyler invites him in is a critical moment in Brian’s ethical permission to follow the piece to its conclusion.
Jared Yates Sexton: I love Brian, but there’s a part of me that kind of got caught on that emotional hitch in his voice. His reaction to John’s suicide is one of the best moments from anything ever, but over the course of the podcast I got to this strange place where I couldn’t always tell if his reactions, because that hitch was so omnipresent, were completely organic or for dramatic purpose. I might not be the best judge of this, however, because I was one of those people who was completely convinced Sarah Koenig was hopelessly in love with Adnan.
Erin Fitzgerald: Since BH is all about pop culture, let’s talk about the pop culture references and ties.
Sarah Sweeney: For me, one of the most heart-rending moments (and pop culture moments) happened in episode 4, hearing Brian wonder whether John B had ever found love in his life. "The kind of love I hear about on the country music station," Brian says, before a clip of Canaan Smith's "Love You Like That" plays. Contemporary country is so schlocky and syrupy and over-the-top, and so much about wanting that it's practically slobbering. I thought employing it was such an effective counterpoint to John B's love life -- a way to highlight his longing and chronic romantic void in what's arguably the South's most popular medium.
When Olin admits to feeling desire for John, Brian spins his words about wanting to kiss John inside his F150 in the parking lot at his mother's doctor appointment into would-be lyrics. "Too bad that didn't really happen," says Brian, "because that's something you can write a country song about." That line just broke my heart. Music can instantly comfort us, but it can also remind us of what we're missing. And because country music is inescapable in the South, it becomes yet another world where John's an outsider.
D. Gilson: 100% agree with Sarah here! The country music is poignantly used, and that moment with Olin in the F-150 both breaks my heart and sets it back aflutter.
Sarah Shotland: Best pop culture moment for me: Olin dating life events pre-and-post Brokeback Mountain. YEEEESSSSS.
Erin Fitzgerald: Does S-town end where and how it should?
Dave Housley: This is another one where I’m conflicted. On one hand, I’m happy to have this audio longread, so incredibly well produced and artfully done, about this singular human being and the place he loved and hated and never left. On the other, I do think it retained just enough of that Serial DNA to keep on trying to present as a mystery or true crime show. There was the town clerk and the “hidden treasure” (which is the part of the marketing I can confidently call bullshit on: that was Tyler digging holes and not a “treasure hunt” but I get it in terms of SEO and marketing and the value of throwing “hidden treasure” in with “murder” and having a top rated podcast, I guess). There was the mercury poisoning theory, which seemed kind of spot-on to me, but still -- all of these half steps in crimey directions. Some of this rounded out the story and I’d say those things that really worked for me were the ones that had to do with place. Some of them seemed like time fillers to get to a certain number of podcasts, and some seemed like, again, that Serial DNA just wanted to assert itself no matter what. In the end, the story that stuck with me, which I loved, was about this complicated, brilliant, flawed guy in this place he both loved and hated but could never bring himself to really leave, and who probably kind of hated himself for that, as well. That was the story that stayed with me and the rest, I don’t know whether it needed to be there or not.
D. Gilson: I’m want to agree with Dave here, as I, too, believe S-Town is best when it’s focused on character and place (and place as character) as opposed to latching on too tightly to its Serial crime story roots (which thank god, IMHO, it loses for the most part after chapter 2). The murder mystery falls away (literally it has to, since it’s a non-starter) and instead we get this, as Dave points out, beautifully flawed and complicated man who restores antique and rare clocks, something few people care enough to think deeply about, and builds an extensive garden maze just because he can. If anything bothers me about the end (even if I find the mercury poisoning plausible, which I do), it’s the sense that Brian (and we?) need to justify John B.’s suicide, a reinforcement of suicide as cultural pariah, as if it isn’t sometimes what a person might truly desire or need. Part of me doesn’t what the last chapter at all, but rather to end on the poignant interview with Olin, who, along with Brian throughout, paints this complex, moving portrait of his friend John B.
Sarah Sweeney: I love Dave’s point about the “Serial DNA” and feeling like a mystery/true crime show. Looking back, I definitely think that was intentional, and I didn’t mind it, because like D. Gilson says, the murder mystery falls away, and a new one takes its place. And it’s John B -- clocks, gold, and all. Just WHO is this person? I think by the end of the podcast, I still didn’t know, and I think the mercury poisoning theory was thrown in there so we’ll never really know. Was John B the way he was because of brain damage or because he insulated himself in Woodstock all his life? I do think it’s an ending John B would’ve appreciated because he was playful and he seemed to enjoy being cagey with people (the buried treasure, his private relationships with both Boozer Downs and the town clerk).
Still, I have to echo some of D. Gilson’s comments here. I also buy into the mercury poisoning, but I didn’t see any reason to save it for the last episode. Ending with yet another of John B’s friends coming out of the nowhere -- and a would-be lover, at that -- would’ve been far more poignant. Not to mention, Olin discovering that John B was dead mimicked both men’s love affair with Brokeback Mountain, and the scene where Ennis finds out that Jack has died.
D. Gilson: Oh Sarah! I hadn’t thought about the potential of mirroring Brokeback Mountain as a final scene. That would have been brilliant. Especially if Brian would have read part of Annie Proulx’s short story.
Jared Yates Sexton: You’re all dead-on. The end, honestly, was a little bit flat for me and I could have used a little more of a hook or final note for the end. That being said, I was emotionally exhausted having listened to the last three episodes back-to-back-to-back and maybe my disappointment with the note has more to do with just being heartbroken that John hasn’t survived/found love.
Erin Fitzgerald: Recommended next step podcasts or reading, if you were into this, and why (how the recommendation is attached to the show).
Sarah Sweeney: Mark Richard’s short story “Strays.” It could’ve been set right in Woodstock. The story’s quirkiness belies its tragedy, for sure, but it’s a quick read and one my mind always returns to when I think about the more unsavory aspects of the South. In terms of music, S-Town made me long for the Marshall Tucker Band and the Outlaws.
D. Gilson: I don’t think we have S-Town or Serial or any of the character driven podcasts we now have if The Kitchen Sisters hadn’t started their style of interviewing and storytelling back in the late ‘70s. And for anyone interested in teaching the podcast as a form of creative nonfiction, I’d be glad to share my syllabus :), but also highly recommend the edited collection Reality Radio, edited by John Biewen and Alexa Dilworth and in its second edition from the University of North Carolina Press.
Sarah Shotland: Maureen Gibbon’s Swimming Sweet Arrow, which is a heart wrenching novel about a shit town, murder, sexuality, intimacy, secrets, narrated by an unforgettable young woman named Vangie who goes down as one of my all time favorite fictional characters.
Dave Housley: Whenever I think about the south I think about Flannery O’ Connor, of course. I read Good Country People about once a year and it always just knocks me off my feet. Still the best story I’ve ever read. More recently and taking a left turn, I’d recommend the most recent Drive by Truckers album, American Band, which is a smart, tough take on our the moment we’re living though/in right now, especially with regard to race and the South.
Also if they weren’t on this thing with me I would recommend both of the Sarah’s books. Junkette by Sarah Shotland is the book I’ve recommended more than any other over the past few years. We started this off talking about place and Junkette is the book I tell people to check out if they want to know how to use place, especially w/r/t sensory details. That book just drips sweaty New Orleans and it stays with you long after you put it down.
I can’t be remotely impartial about Sarah Sweeney’s Tell Me if You’re Lying because Sarah’s my friend and Barrelhouse put it out. But everything Sarah said in her answer about the characters of S-town is a good reflection on what you’ll get in her book. It’s great.
Jared Yates Sexton: Big Bad Love by Larry Brown is one of my oldest and closest friends, and I reached for it the second I finished this thing. Honestly, that and the early cuts of Hayes Carll are the things that remind me the most of home besides, now, the addition of S-Town.
Brittany Hailer: Sarah Shotland’s Junkette should be mandatory reading for everyone.
But also: Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River is a wonderful female Huck Finn novel: guns, river rafts, budding sexuality, complicated and sprawling family etc.