S-Town: The full-"season" post, for S-Town bingers (and other completists).
March 29, 2017 8:18 AM - Subscribe

Brian Reed's novelistic reportage/show was released in full from the get-go. It's a tightly woven tale, with one chapter flowing into the next - here's where to discuss it as a whole. (Ep 1 thread here, ep 2 thread here.)
posted by progosk (105 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think Chapter VI just broke my heart a little bit. I know men like these. I've had these conversations with them. I know their despair and longings. I've never heard it made public like this before, and it is both wonderful and entirely destroying.
posted by hippybear at 9:51 AM on March 29 [16 favorites]


who took the gold
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 10:51 AM on March 29


Seems to me the gold is left as the one remaining mystery, with something told to the lawyer, something to the town clerk, and something seemingly even to Tyler, which we're not made party to. (That is, if it's not all been used up in fire-gilding!)

But the very last paragraph kind of reframed the gold for me, if I interpret it correctly: the existence of John's gold... is that just lore connected to the fabled escapades of his outlaw great-grandfather?
posted by progosk at 11:06 AM on March 29


I don't think so, because John explicitly mentioned to Faye as he was drinking cyanide that there were a bunch of bars in the freezer. And obviously we're not supposed to know what happened to the gold but I do think we're meant to wonder where it is. I think the mystery of "John's Gold" is inherent to the story. Promise, and genius, and wealth, and value -- stolen away in the dark of night in a Shittown in the South, probably wasted on something frivolous, burned up, used up, gone.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 11:13 AM on March 29 [7 favorites]


I'm wondering so much about how a piece like this affects a place like that. If it does. (Local news article.)
posted by progosk at 11:21 AM on March 29 [5 favorites]


Pretty good interview with Reed.
posted by progosk at 11:25 AM on March 29


I couldn't help but wonder if there ever really were gold bars... this was a guy who regularly plated things with gold, it would be very easy for him to make a fake one to show Tyler. And if anyone was to make up a story about hiding gold, it would be John.
posted by jenjenc at 11:38 AM on March 29 [5 favorites]


Allen, one of the people on the list of "people to be called", knows something, or he has a theory, anyway. (Bill doesn't seem to, but some of the other horologists, also do.)
posted by progosk at 1:28 PM on March 29


I just engineered a few hours of shelving, shifting, and weeding to "cover for the pages" so I could finish this.

There was a Switcheroo pulled here, and while I still enjoyed the stuff that came after the switch from Who Done It? to Character Study, I still wish the switch did not happen. I can see why it did - with ongoing lawsuits and court cases, nobody could talk as much as they used to - but I felt you soaked more in the town than in John when there was a potential conspiracy to uncover. I really wanted an Episode VIII where Brian comes back and asks hard questions to the town employees- Why did you lie about calling the list? Why did you enable theft?

As for the gold, it probably was once buried/plated/in the freezer but I think John burned through it when he started paying $100/hr for pain. There may have been some left over, but John had to know the money was running out. Death happened when he learned he could not use it to summon Tyler any longer - if he wouldn't show up to be paid for Church, then would he come over once the money is gone?
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:37 PM on March 29 [4 favorites]


Also, bring me the head of Wormy Voice SquareSpace Guy! He will not mind, for it shall simply grow back!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:40 PM on March 29 [1 favorite]


(Another local news article.)
posted by progosk at 1:44 PM on March 29


People in S-Town, ranked:

1. John B (Zach Galifianakis's best role yet)
2. Tyler's grandma (don't bother her when she listens to opera)
3. Olin/Olan (heartbreaking, direct, proud)
4. Tyler (riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in tattoos)
5. Tyler's uncle (a bullet in the brain, shouting DEATH and MONEY with full-throated anger)
6. Faye (not telling the truth?)
7. Rita (started out a villain, redeemed to some degree but not enough)
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 1:53 PM on March 29 [15 favorites]


Clue me in on Tyler's grandma's accent, would you?
posted by progosk at 1:58 PM on March 29


(I'm hearing something Swiss, or Germanic, in her voice..)
posted by progosk at 3:19 PM on March 29 [4 favorites]


My, my. The real mystery was John himself. It was painful listening to episode 3 without him, in a sense.

Thought parade:
* I will say this for episode 5: it argues that both Tyler and the cousins are carpetbaggers and well, both are at least kinda right. I can't say I like the cousins too much, but you can mostly see their POV about skeevy tattoo dude always hanging about suspiciously (plus the part where he's probably going to jail). That said, I don't know how the hell one justifies suggesting cutting a dead guy's nipples off to get his nipple rings. Ew, indeed.
* I think John's gold is still buried out there, but he hid it so well and told no one that nobody will ever know, which is disappointing. I was expecting a gold reveal by the end when I heard the words "treasure hunt" bandied about.
* I really want to smack John for offing himself without a fucking will. I'm not surprised he killed himself but I am surprised he did it on such a spur of the moment, with no will and leaving his mother totally unprotected and to be left with the cousins. He had to have known that.
* WTF, Faye? Did you call anyone or NOT? Fishy indeed.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:43 PM on March 29 [6 favorites]


While there are so many more deeper threads to pull on in this, very superficially, I just want to know if the producers couldn't help themselves with including as much audio of the uncle-with-a-bullet-in-his-brain one man amen corner while Brian is talking to Tyler as they did. Its bizarre, cringey and nearly scripted levels of echoing the salient topics are just too much podcast gold to pass up, I'd hazard.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 7:10 PM on March 29 [3 favorites]


The timing of everything is really smart and invisible but so intentional. Less than a novel, I think this series listens like a better New Yorker non fiction piece reads. Anecdotes are leading you, unknowing, into a bigger picture, so when a curtain falls away you realize where you're standing and it's so obvious even though you didn't notice yourself walking here.

I'm actually disappointed I binged. I don't think I absorbed the last few episodes as well as I did the first. Maybe it was the shift from mystery to biography, that made it less captivating (except for that long bit with Olan which was riveting), maybe it lost a bit of oomph as it went on, but maybe it was just a lot to take in in just a couple days.

Anyway, it's a testament to highly skilled writing, editing and production. These folks are the the top of the game: the originators of the form showing masterful power with such care. It's like they're the only antiquarian clock repairers on the Eastern Seaboard, or the last practitioners of fire guilding: part of why I loved this was just listening to people do the work they do so well.
posted by latkes at 8:06 PM on March 29 [15 favorites]


I have to agree with latkes. The entire structure of these 7 hours elevates the form in a way I hadn't formerly thought about. Tiny little comments made in Chapter I suddenly have deep resonance in, say, Chapter V. I honestly think that's a benefit for having the full series released at once. I drive about 400 miles a night for my job, and so I listened to it pretty much in one sitting, There were so many "ah!" and "a-ha!" and "oh, wow!" moments where just a four word phrase or a single sentence from an earlier Chapter that, honestly I thought had just been included as texture or whatever, suddenly Became A Thing. I don't think I've encountered long-form journalism with foreshadowing before.

I didn't really mind the shift away from Murder Mystery to whatever the rest of the piece was (character study, sociological study of a small town, family intrigue drama) because at its core was always John B.

I mean, the whole piece is so carefully constructed. Chapter I has Brian telling John something like "I feel like I'm wandering through your mind" while they are in the hedge maze. And the rest of the series has the different gates in the maze opening and closing and maybe there is a solution or maybe it's the null set.

It makes me wonder how many story possibilities have been presented to talented people at NPR or APM or TAL or whomever and reporters started down the path and then were abandoned because, well, who can do a 7 hour story on broadcast radio! Podcasting, especially what is happening with it right now, may lead to a lot more of this kind of story being pursued and published. Yes, please!
posted by hippybear at 2:12 AM on March 30 [27 favorites]


Also, I'd have to re-listen, but did I hear at least one interview by Brian where he seems to be using a different name, like undercover or something? And also, I found it fascinating to listen to the interview segments. I didn't know that reporters asked questions like the ones Brian was asking, interpreting feelings and non-verbal cues into very pointed queries to get the subject to dig deeper. Somehow I'd assumed that doing interviews as a reporter were a bit more... formal? a bit less... um... leading? prodding? I don't know exactly how to describe it.

I guess it's something I should have expected, but never really thought about. I feel like I learned something about reporting listening to this series, along with all the other things.
posted by hippybear at 2:19 AM on March 30 [2 favorites]


John B. said on tape at one point that he wanted to leave Tyler 20 oz of gold. That's about $25,000, so hardly a fortune. And from the sounds of it, Tyler had tapped him for plenty in the recent past, to say nothing of the buses full of lumber, cars, etc. And I got to be okay with Rita only to them find WTF she sold all the land to the KKK lumber guy? Shittown is right. Grrr.

The lesson of John B. is that so much of the tragedy of life is what we do to ourselves.
posted by rikschell at 5:57 AM on March 30 [1 favorite]


The producers/writers did a very clever thing by including/excluding just enough information to make you consider whether Rita got Tyler all wrong, or whether Tyler got Rita all wrong. But one thing that they seemed to make clear, with a bit of subtlety: everything Tyler said about Rita ended up being proved right.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 6:49 AM on March 30 [6 favorites]


"Why did you want them to cut out his nipple rings?"

"Oh I don't know... I guess to have something to remember him by."

Rita, you just done played yourself.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 6:56 AM on March 30 [19 favorites]


I mean, who else would she sell the land to? Tyler sure as hell can't afford it. The median income in Bibb County is $52k, and a quick Zillow search shows a 130 acre lot with no improvements going for $350k. Not many people in Bibb County have that kind of money, and it doesn't seem like the kind of place that out-of-towners are itching to buy investment property in. Of course the K3 guy bought it. The Florida cousins sure as hell didn't want to pay taxes on all that land, so they offloaded it to the first bidder.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:27 AM on March 30 [1 favorite]


* WTF, Faye? Did you call anyone or NOT? Fishy indeed.

My read on that was that Faye knew that John B. was gay, and didn't want to call a list of strange men, who were possibly ex-lovers, to tell them he was dead. Some small town people have the wildest imaginations that jump to the most scandalous scenarios. I'm not surprised when presented with a list of men who were friends of John B.'s, but not from around there, she "forgot" to call them.

The producers/writers did a very clever thing by including/excluding just enough information to make you consider whether Rita got Tyler all wrong, or whether Tyler got Rita all wrong. But one thing that they seemed to make clear, with a bit of subtlety: everything Tyler said about Rita ended up being proved right.

I appreciated that they gave Rita a chance to give her side of the story, and you can see from her perspective that Tyler seemed shady. But then again, we, the listener, had heard John B. talk about how he intended to leave everything to Tyler and his brother. I felt like they were trying to introduce some ambiguity that wasn't in line with what we knew about the relationship between John B. and Tyler, as established by John B.

Also, I kept waiting for Reed to be called as a witness to testify on Tyler's behalf, with his recordings as evidence. Why didn't that happen? What kind of shitty lawyer did Tyler have?
posted by donajo at 9:14 AM on March 30 [30 favorites]


Re: nipple rings: During the last chapter, when Tyler was describing "Church" and how he pierced and repierced John B.'s nipples on the regular, I wondered if the funeral director wasn't right - they couldn't easily remove the nipple rings due to scar tissue or something.
posted by donajo at 9:18 AM on March 30 [4 favorites]


My read on that was that Faye knew that John B. was gay, and didn't want to call a list of strange men, who were possibly ex-lovers, to tell them he was dead.

That's a great insight.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 9:19 AM on March 30 [6 favorites]


It is a really great insight, agreed. That actually explains quite a bit, without being farfetched. Excellent job!
posted by kevinbelt at 9:39 AM on March 30


"we, the listener, had heard John B. talk about how he intended to leave everything to Tyler and his brother... Also, I kept waiting for Reed to be called as a witness to testify on Tyler's behalf, with his recordings as evidence. Why didn't that happen?"

The recordings would also show that John B. was mentally unstable, and possibly suffering from mercury poisoning. That calls into question the "sound mind and body" portion of the will, so I'm not sure that it would actually clear that much up. Rita's lawyers, at least, would certainly argue that.

"What kind of shitty lawyer did Tyler have?"

Well, he's a guy whose primary source of income was repeatedly piercing the same person's nipples. One suspects that he can't exactly afford a white-shoe firm.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:51 AM on March 30 [5 favorites]




I think it's pretty obvious that Tyler has the gold. I believe the gold existed (as evidenced by John B. talking about it to Faye on the phone), and we know Tyler took items from the house before anyone else arrived (e.g. the laptop - Reed: "I know who has that"). Seems pretty obvious to me. I think all the "did anyone get the gold?" drama is Reed covering for Tyler. There is no real drama, but without the drama, every finger points straight at Tyler. Every other person in the story believes Tyler has it. Tyler himself says that if anyone would find it, it would be him. But Reed likes Tyler, and clearly feels that he deserves the gold, so he speculates on other possibilities to draw some of the heat off Tyler.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:00 AM on March 30 [4 favorites]


I don't know that I agree with Vox's "should this story have been told" take on the story. I think if you invite an investigative journalist into your life, as John B did, you've opened the door to whatever ends up becoming public later. It's obvious across the entire piece that Reed was being respectful of whether someone wanted to be recorded or not, but he was also entirely willing to talk about conversations he had with people off-tape. Because if you're talking to a journalist, that's a thing that happens. And I don't think there's a single revelation about John B that happens across the hours that wasn't already something that he'd mentioned, at least in passing, to Brian on the record. It's just how the story is spun out that makes it feel like a surprise.
posted by hippybear at 10:26 AM on March 30 [8 favorites]


I agree, hippybear. Is it violating FDR's privacy to reveal he had polio? John B. isn't a public figure like FDR (although he did invite a reporter to come down and talk about his life), but on the other hand, John B. didn't exactly make a secret of his sexual orientation or his mental illness. He seems pretty open about things, and I find it hard to believe he'd object to the story Reed told.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:45 AM on March 30


Somebody on reddit posted a theory that Tyler found the gold in the freezer, but he thought there was more, and that's why he continued to search the property.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:15 PM on March 30 [4 favorites]


My sense of irony is messed up by Alanis, but is(n't) it ironic that John B invites the journo into town to investigate corruption by the local police only to have the local police's corruption being the one thing that seems to have let Tyler have the legacy that John B claims to have wanted to give him, but never actually settled properly?
posted by marylynn at 1:33 PM on March 30 [14 favorites]


Hot take there, from vox. The Missing Richard Simmons podcast was absolutely unethical and cruelly invasive. I don't believe that S-Town is. "as powerful as it is, it would have been even more powerful had its subject been able to consent to its being shared with the world." but, but... he clearly did consent! He talked on tape about deeply personal things for many hours over many months. I don't see a question of consent.

I thought for SURE that clues to a treasure hunt would be found inside of all of the clocks John B worked on over his lifetime, and then they'd track them down one by one. I couldn't believe that's not what played out when the professor opened the sun dial.
posted by palegirl at 3:22 PM on March 30 [2 favorites]


The gold was never the mystery for me, and more than the murder was. By the end of the first episode John B was the mystery. All the foreshadowing and clues reminded me of a John Irving novel. The clock metaphor should be hackneyed but it isn't here. The maze would be cliché if this was a novel but the man built an honest to god maze, so it's not either. I picked up on the gilding early on, but didn't think of the poisoning until it came up much later. It made me think about some of the theories surrounding Van Gogh and lead poisoning. It was fascinating to learn about this man, with whom I had some things in common. I grew up in a shit suburb, gay, around the same time as John B. But totally different of course, because there was a city nearby and I got the fuck out of my shit suburb asap and moved to the city. And I can't compare my hometown, sad as it was, to rural Alabama for racism or homophobia. Not even close.

I'm glad we don't know what happened to the gold. The villain of the whole piece for me is the shitheel that owns the lumber company. I could do with a hackneyed ending if it meant he somehow got his comeuppance.

That was some brilliant storytelling.
posted by Cuke at 4:03 PM on March 30 [10 favorites]


I don't think Tyler has the gold because frankly, the dude is not that bright and I just don't think he (a) outthought John to figure out where it was, and (b) was smart enough to say, hide the stuff or otherwise make sure nobody else knew he had it, rather than suddenly be blowing cash left and right.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:30 PM on March 30 [4 favorites]


Well one thing about the gold is: gold was quite possibly the death of John B. McLamore. So I think the takeaway narratively is: fuck the gold.
posted by latkes at 8:58 PM on March 30 [2 favorites]




Vanity Fair:
McLemore’s suicide, revealed at the end of the second episode, is the true impetus for S-Town—“that was really the bulk of the story that we wanted to tell, what took place after that,” Snyder says. The first two episodes, then, are essentially scene-setting, introducing the characters and the place so that we’re invested by the time the anvil falls. It’s a storytelling gamble that’s paid off in the past—imagine how the first-time viewers of Psycho felt when Janet Leigh met her end in the shower. With S-Town, it’s worked again.
That's an interesting thing that I had never thought of before but yeah. I remember the first time I saw Psycho, many years after it was released and Leigh's death was utterly famous. I didn't realize how early it came in the film and how the protagonist was going to shift, and I was confused and adrift and surprised.
posted by hippybear at 2:50 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]


So I've been thinking about this, and here's my theory:

I think the incorporation of the town is what broke John B. It was clear he hated Bibb County before. He called the high school "Auschwitz" and his professor said that it was obvious that he'd been made fun of a lot by the time he got to college. But then, in the prime of his life, he got a chance to do something about it. Incorporation was a fresh start, a chance to create something that was not like the way things had always been, and he threw himself into it. But he pretty soon realized that he wasn't going to have the impact he wanted, and before long, Woodstock became the kind of town where cops assaulted female drivers and kids wasted their money on tattoos and motorcycles - exactly what he hated. It was no different than it had been before, and no different from any other shit town in Bibb County or elsewhere in Alabama. I think that really affected John B. If he couldn't do anything to change his own tiny town for the better, how was he going to do anything about the bigger problems facing the world, like climate change? It sounds like there had always been an undercurrent of depression, but that seems to me like where he realized his powerlessness and the pain took over his life.

This is probably shaped a lot by my own background as a civic-minded eccentric. If you're a celibate gay Southerner, or an autodidact horologist, or whatever, you might have a different take. That's the genius of this story, though, and why it didn't just end up as a 20-minute segment on This American Life: John B. is such a complex character that there's a little bit for everyone. You can't really boil him down to just one aspect of his personality.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:05 AM on March 31 [8 favorites]


From that Atlantic article:

"S-Town turns out to be something much savvier and stranger, though: an act of journalism and literature and humanism that, if anything, hints at the possibility of cultural reconciliation. [...] Again and again, characters initially presented in caricature-like fashion by McLemore or another source get a chance to speak for themselves, and the liberal ideal of universal empathy and understanding gets applied on a granular scale."
and
"At times, it even seems possible that S-Town makes good on a grand, hidden plan by McLemore to trick a radio producer into turning his life into literature [...] If so, for all its terribly tragic dimensions, it was a successful ploy—one that defies McLemore’s pessimism by asserting that vastly different people can come to understand one another."

This was a general gist, a kind of ultimate aim, that pervaded Serial 1 and 2 too, to my ears.
posted by progosk at 7:36 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]


I started this at 9 on Wednesday and finished at 5:30 Wednesday.

I'm still not sure how I feel about it.
posted by Tevin at 1:58 PM on March 31 [2 favorites]


I enjoyed the podcast, and I'm glad they didn't drag it out into an artificially extended seven-week series. Releasing a finished work as a serial is, if you ask me, the closest an artist can get to physically punching their audience in the face.

I'm surprised by how uninteresting the ad blurb was given the content of the actual show. Compared to the average person, I'm a pretty big fan of clocks. I have three books on my shelf about the history of clocks. If I pass a museum with a historic clock exhibit, I'll happily pay any admission price and head immediately for it. But, a seven hours podcast sold as a story about quirky clock restorers is a mighty hard sell, even for me. Of all the three minute excerpts they could have used, their choice was very strange.

The actual show - or perhaps, the three barely related shows: murder mystery, buried treasure mystery, and tragic character study - was really engaging and thoughtful. It was also incredibly heartbreaking.

I grew up in a rural place, but it was within commuting distance of an international city, which dampens the shit-town-ness. However, I do have family who live in their own shit-towns. (Mostly Ozark shit-towns, rather than Southern shit-towns, but the culture feels familiar.) And I've never been able to understand why anyone - much less someone I empathize with - would be willing to live in such a place. I feel heartsick when I think about my smart and kind cousins who've abandoned their childhood dreams to work shit-jobs, raise kids who will almost certainly spend their lives working work shit-jobs, and spend the rest of their time watching shit-TV and sharing church gossip while drinking shit-cofffee in terrible diners. But I feel even worse for John. He's someone I empathize with in almost every way. He sounds like half the people I formed deep relationships with in college. (Most dropped out, but they wound up in interesting places surrounded by interesting people.) It's no coincidence of course: NYC NPR employees are also a lot like me. This is clearly a story crafted *for* me.

For a $200 Greyhound ticket, you can make your way to a city where people will joyfully stab you with needles as much as you want, bring your to orgasm, and treat you to tapas afterward. Given a choice between hundreds of acres and a garden maze in Shit Town and living in a literal alley in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, or a three-beds-per-room flat in the Bronx, I'd happily saw off any three limbs to make it to either of the later. Shit Town sounds insufferable. The obvious response to, "what don't people in Fallujah leave" is that they don't have tens of thousands of dollars under their mattress, English fluency, and a US passport. Given a choice between living in Shit Town and suicide, I'd probably make the same choice. . . but the world is full of so may other options! I believe that mental illness and possible mercury poisoning make rational decision making hard, but it's heartbreaking to think of the life this guy might have lived in a place that isn't awful.

This is perhaps the most depressing podcast I've ever heard. So much talent, so much waste, so much suffering for so little reason. Fuck Shit Town. Fuck Alabama. Fuck the United States. Fuck family. It's all horrible and sad and pointless. To be clear, I'm grateful to have heard this piece, even if it makes me incredibly sad. But it doesn't improve my impression of mankind.
I mean, who else would she sell the land to? Tyler sure as hell can't afford it. The median income in Bibb County is $52k, and a quick Zillow search shows a 130 acre lot with no improvements going for $350k.
These people make a median income of $52k? That's three times what I would have expected, and a hell of a lot more than most the friends and family I know who aren't horrible racist, homophobic, assholes. As someone who's spent most of my adult life learning not to discriminate against southerners and "white trash," this podcast sure isn't helping.
posted by eotvos at 3:26 PM on March 31 [4 favorites]


So, according to the New Yorker, S-Town is at 10 million downloads - I presume that's to be divided by 7 (episodes), so there are a million and a half listeners, so far.
posted by progosk at 4:29 PM on April 1


"I've never been able to understand why anyone - much less someone I empathize with - would be willing to live in such a place"

Um, I feel like maybe you pissed a large part of the podcast. It goes into detail about John B.'s family's ties to the land, his involvement in local politics, and his general feeling that Woodstock was "home", despite its problems. He also goes on a fairly long rant about life in New York City. Where would he fire-gild clock parts in the Bronx? Where would he build a maze in SF? If nothing else, I find the idea of a curmudgeon whose biggest pet peeve is tattooed rich kids behaving frivolously living in a hipster neighborhood in a coastal metropolis quite amusing. And I find it hard to believe that he would choose to be a wage slave to afford a crappy 1br apartment rather than living like a king and only working when he chooses on 140 acres.

The whole point of the story was, as Brian Reed said, to try to understand another person. And your impression, after seven hours, is "this podcast sucks because John B. McLemore doesn't agree with how I think life should be lived"?
posted by kevinbelt at 11:35 AM on April 2 [10 favorites]


Of all the three minute excerpts they could have used, their choice was very strange.

To my ears, the intro blurb suggested a true crime mystery, at least partly because the podcast came out of Serial. Since true crime podcasts basically became a thing because of Serial, so this seemed reasonably canny to me.

I'm surprised that folks think that any character close to the situation - including John B. - is a reliable narrator about anyone else, including themselves. They are all mazes, made even more convoluted by a team of talented producers with access to many, many hours of tape.
posted by Going To Maine at 1:21 PM on April 3 [3 favorites]


After seeing Going To Maine's comment in Recent Activity, I realized that my comment said "maybe you pissed a large part of the podcast". I obviously meant "missed", not "pissed". Apologies for any misunderstanding.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:54 PM on April 3 [2 favorites]


I’m glad we don't know what happened to the gold. The villain of the whole piece for me is the shitheel that owns the lumber company. I could do with a hackneyed ending if it meant he somehow got his comeuppance.

This is interesting. The fellow who owns the lumber company is a likely racist (contra someone who periodically does racist things, as do we all) who likes Limbaugh and probably voted for Trump. He has some wild kids, and has probably done some wild things himself.

Many of the people in John B’s circle -including the man himself- are some degree of racist, and John B. is characterized as a “woman-hater”. Given that this is Alabama many of them are likely Trump voters or non-voters. Tyler appears to be willing to commit fraud and is okay with portraying himself as willing to chop off a man’s fingers as revenge for a theft.

The only exceptional thing about the man seems to be that he has the money to buy John B.’s land. He doesn’t see the point of maintaining a beautiful hedge maze, but that doesn’t seem exceptional given that he doesn’t have much of a connection to it or John B. That makes him some degree of philistine, I suppose, but it’s his land to do what he wants with. John B. was happy to show the maze to people, but John B. is also a deceased, avowed atheist, and -while it may have been left out of the podcast- we aren’t told of some group of “Friends of John B.” lobbying to save the maze. I guess if he finds the treasure and keeps it I’ll say mean things about him, but that seems outside of the story’s scape

All of which is to say that the man is mostly outside the story’s scope. He’s certainly the villain in some podcast, but in this one he just seems part of the background noise of the town itself.
posted by Going To Maine at 2:51 PM on April 3 [2 favorites]


I am surprised that folks think there ever was a treasure. I sincerely doubt there was ever any 'gold.' I mean, the podcast invited you to question it by describing how great this guy was at...making other things look like gold.

This is clearly a story crafted *for* me.

To some degree, it implies an audience that's mostly distinct from its subjects. I agree. No one says 'look at these assholes,' but you can feel it, despite the gloss it's possible to lend it of enhancing understanding among different people. It's hard. I think Brian Reed avoided most of the most obvious tropes of educated, urban people writing about less educated, rural people, but at the same time, the anthropological stance - almost cartoonishly objective - rendered the subjects with greater strangeness and elevated their everydayness perhaps beyond where a differently-framed production would place them. This set of events and characters is not without interest, but at the same time, what gave the story any coherence was entirely the narrative process laid upon it. The people themselves are archetypes that are not too hard to find in any insular community.

It sucks that Faye didn't call all the people on the list. But did I miss something? Is the town clerk actually somehow obligated to call people on an undated list the deceased happened to leave? That doesn't seem like any normal municipal-clerical process I've ever heard of. That would usually be up to a family member, if anyone. I don't know that she really failed in doing that - though she did fail in lying about it.
posted by Miko at 8:11 PM on April 3 [1 favorite]


I am surprised that folks think there ever was a treasure. I sincerely doubt there was ever any 'gold.' I mean, the podcast invited you to question it by describing how great this guy was at… making other things look like gold.

Do you mean the fire-gilding of clocks? “Making other things look like gold” sounds like a suggestion that John B. was about creating appealing façades for things, and I’m not sure what that would entail. The fire-gilding itself, is, to be clear, actually plating things in gold. They don’t “look” like gold - the gold is actually applied and encases the gilded object.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:27 PM on April 3


Yes, I do understand that. However, you don't need much gold for plating. It's possible to even buy amounts sufficient to gild small parts at Michael's. I just don't think there were ever real gold bars. I sincerely doubt it.
posted by Miko at 8:35 PM on April 3


Here's a video - you can see how little you'd need, especially for a clock part. Here's another video showing how you can make the amalgam with gold foil.
posted by Miko at 8:42 PM on April 3


Obituaries can be wonderful treasure-troves, when done right, and I feel that S-Town became one of the best. I think this completely exonerates Brian Reed for his small privacy violations (per Vox's overreaching headline), if they even were that.

Serial is now 3-for-3 giving complex, inconclusive, but sympathetic and insightful deep dives into lives and systems, with all their flaws and beauty. Ultimately, this reach for human understanding is what will keep me coming back. To their unsurpassed quality of podcast journalism and integrity, S-Town adds storytelling ability. (Going back and listening to the opening of Episode 1: wow.)

"A clock that old doesn't come with a manual."
posted by Quagkapi at 5:18 AM on April 4 [3 favorites]


"Is the town clerk actually somehow obligated to call people on an undated list the deceased happened to leave? That doesn't seem like any normal municipal-clerical process I've ever heard of."

I got the impression that he gave Faye to make calls in her capacity as a friend, not in her official capacity of town clerk. It's just a coincidence that she happens to be the town clerk.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:45 AM on April 4 [13 favorites]


I'm upset. I don't know why but the last episode made me really upset.
posted by k8t at 8:39 PM on April 5 [6 favorites]


I'm upset because, when you strip away the coy intrigue and larger-than-life characters, all that's left at the end is tragedy and loss. There is no master plan, there is no will; the projects that John B. cared about so deeply and devoted himself to so entirely unravel almost immediately without him, consumed by Shit Town. It is a brilliant obituary, though. The interviews with his dear friends, juxtaposed with a glimpse of who he was in life, were perfect. I could have listened to those parts a lot longer.

The media doesn't usually cover suicides because of the copy-cat effect it can have on people teetering on the edge. I would worry about this podcast for that reason. It's not healthy to dwell on the minds of the suicidal. But I hope the greater lesson from S-Town is the selfishness and cruelty of the act.

But at least KKK dude is going to have random treasure seekers digging holes on his property and creeping around with metal detectors for the foreseeable future as a result of this podcast.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 9:57 PM on April 5 [13 favorites]


I feel like John was in a bdsm relationship with Tyler that Tyler was in for the money. Yes, Tyler felt that John was a father figure, but I suspect that Tyler understood that John had feelings for him.
The interview with the other young man who moved to NY really brought it home for me.

And although I am deeply sad for John and everyone involved and I wish John could have gotten the love he wanted, it seems like he was paying for Tyler to touch him.
posted by k8t at 10:02 PM on April 5 [4 favorites]


Great audio interview with Brian.
posted by k8t at 10:02 PM on April 5 [4 favorites]


It is a brilliant obituary, though. The interviews with his dear friends, juxtaposed with a glimpse of who he was in life, were perfect.

And now that I think about it, Brian Reed gave back to John B.'s friends something they were denied by being excluded from the funeral: the opportunity to stand up in front of a sympathetic audience and commemorate the loss of a dear friend. That was very kind.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:17 PM on April 5 [14 favorites]


Great audio interview with Brian.

Cannot second that hard enough: unmissably great!
posted by progosk at 1:35 AM on April 6


From the interview, Reed's answers to my early question (why publish all episodes/chapters together?): 1. after hearing ep 1 you'd google John B. and find out he's dead; 2. unlike Sarah Koenig, he couldn't imagine writing episodes while publishing them; 3. avoid resorting to cliffhangers as a recurring end-of-ep device; 4. hadn't been done before and felt cool/right for their "novel".
posted by progosk at 3:20 AM on April 6 [4 favorites]


The Longform podcast is fantastic, so glad they got Brian on!
posted by ellieBOA at 9:43 AM on April 6


There is a neat little easter egg in the S-Town website's source code.
posted by Gin and Broadband at 12:57 PM on April 6 [2 favorites]


[Linking to the view source view doesn't seem to work, so I just changed that to the actual site url. Carry on.]
posted by cortex at 1:14 PM on April 6 [1 favorite]


neat! (I lack the ASCII skillz to repost here - if that's even allowed...)
posted by progosk at 1:20 PM on April 6


I am surprised that folks think there ever was a treasure. I sincerely doubt there was ever any 'gold.'

So either you think Faye was just straight up lying to Reed when she said that John told her about the gold bars in the freezer, or you think that John, with cyanide choking away his life, decided to play one last clever gotcha on the rubes of S-town. Either way, I'm curious as to why you think that.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 3:20 PM on April 6


I think that because I think just about everyone in the tale is an unreliable narrator, whether by intention, by omission, or by simple human foible. I think a rumor like 'that guy's got gold' can take on a life of its own, and has its own uses for everyone who promotes it. I think that an emergency communication - if it happened, and happened the way it's related - is something often misremembered and jumbled. I think memory is complicated, as is interpersonal lore, as are small towns, and so on. I think we heard a story. The story had a lot of vague elements, a lot of secondhand elements, a lot of hearsay elements, a lot of self-reported elements. It was a good story. The story served everyone involved in certain ways. I tend not to be credulous.
posted by Miko at 6:42 PM on April 6


It (the series as a whole) reminded me a bit of that Orson Scott Card idea of a speaker for the dead, whose job it is to tell who a person is, complete, is after they die.

I felt actively uncomfortable listening to the the description of Church, it felt invasive and Tyler seemed complicit in exposing his friend's private need - though of course it can't have been so private given there was often an audience. I wonder what Bubba and the rest made of it?

It left me thinking how we don't actually get to find out much about Tyler's side of the friendship, except in what he chooses to tell and what we know about his background. Tyler was the greatest mystery in the series, more than the gold itself. Was he just in it for what he could get out of John B? I don't think so, and I really appreciate that the ambiguity is allowed to stand in the storytelling.

I hope the maze survives.
posted by tavegyl at 11:26 PM on April 6 [3 favorites]


I hope the maze survives.

Google Maps/Earth's satellite images of the area date back to last October, and it looks in perfect sahpe/order in those. But this reddit thread, leads to this photo and an instagram video which looks more recent, and less promising. The thread (and comments to the video) do offer some vague hope, in that it seems that in local property records, the plot including the house and maze are still in Mary Grace's name, so it may be that what was sold to the K3 Burts was only a wooded part of the property.
posted by progosk at 1:20 AM on April 7


I think that Tyler is a wily product of his surroundings. He's learned some skills, maybe even trades, and he can hustle those well enough to get by. But he also had a pretty shitty background, the kind that teaches you to read people and to bend situations to your advantage. I don't mean in an evil way, or even in an "I'm using you" way necessarily, but there are skills that kind of life teaches you about people around you. He seemed to be using those a bit, or maybe a lot, or maybe not at all.

You're right that we don't get much from Tyler across this. I'm guessing we get as much Tyler as either Tyler allowed or as Brian felt fit the story. Does that mean I think that Brian has a whole alternate take on Tyler that he purposely left out of the podcast because it ruined the narrative? I don't think that. I trust Brian to tell us a fully-rounded story. It does mean I think Tyler may have left a lot of things away from Brian and his microphone.
posted by hippybear at 3:44 AM on April 7 [3 favorites]


I think that Tyler is a wily product of his surroundings.

Having spent some time in places like this (including some uncomfortably close to S-Town), I agree, and it's a garden variety sort of personality outcome in those parts.
posted by Miko at 7:41 AM on April 7 [1 favorite]


I finally finished this and think it is an incredible bit of storytelling, but I'm not gonna lie: That someone has told a story that captures the loneliness of small town phone line hook-ups AND the casual misogyny, racism, and self-loathing homophobia often found among gay men there (and everywhere) AND the "soft-hustle" attractive straight men often use when dealing with gay men, especially closeted ones, AND the use of substances and masochism to escape depression, and that someone wasn't me, is filling me with a lot of creative envy
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:22 AM on April 7 [23 favorites]


So here's a great bit of narrative depth in S-Town:
Early on, they depict John pissing in a sink to save water, and help with the steady desertification of the planet. And then they have an extensive talk about Brokeback Mountain; the novella starts with one of the main characters waking up and pissing in a sink.

They never really explicitly make the connection; but pissing in a sink always brings Brokeback to mind for me. A great bit of storytelling.
posted by kaibutsu at 6:26 PM on April 8 [2 favorites]


Incidentally, "Brokeback Mountain" can be read online over at The New Yorker.
posted by Going To Maine at 10:11 PM on April 8 [3 favorites]


I'm pretty sure John's gold was the friends he made along the way.
Only half-joking.

I am definitely not a genius and am only 10% gay, but I've not encountered a character who reflected me back to myself like John. Sort of slobberknockered by it. Thinking a lot about my time.

Plotwise, did Mary Grace's purse turn up? I think Faye said when she got to the house after John's suicide, there was no gold in the freezer and Mary Grace's purse was missing. And part of Rita's explanation for going to the house (Padlocked, as it turned out) first rather than the hospital was to pick up some things, including the purse.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 12:54 AM on April 9


So I've been thinking. Would anyone else like to know a little more about Mary Grace? Between the fact that her son was a genius polymath and her father and grandfather were hugely wealthy outlaws, there must be more to her story than being a quiet old lady with dementia.
posted by kevinbelt at 11:44 AM on April 9 [8 favorites]


Folks here might have realized already, but the soundtrack is available on Bandcamp.
posted by Going To Maine at 6:23 PM on April 9 [1 favorite]


So I've been thinking. Would anyone else like to know a little more about Mary Grace? Between the fact that her son was a genius polymath and her father and grandfather were hugely wealthy outlaws, there must be more to her story than being a quiet old lady with dementia.

Mary Grace was left pretty undeveloped. At the end of the podcast, we get the story about her praying to give birth to a genius, but I don’t think that was mentioned anywhere else. Similarly, we are briefly presented with the notion that John was an inadequate caretaker for his mother, but it isn’t touched on further. That’s fine since this is really a story about John and not John and how he related to Mary Grace, but it’s easy to see how if some more weight were placed on that thread he would come across as more of a crank, as someone who wasn’t simply trapped in a destructive cycle but who was actively damaging his parent.
posted by Going To Maine at 6:49 PM on April 9 [2 favorites]


I wish we'd explored the breadth of John B.'s, in his own words, queerness. It felt to me like he may have been in love with the first town clerk, and maybe even had a physical relationship with her, but that's never even entertained. John himself refers to relationships with women and men, and his fraught relationship with different parts of his identity make his misogyny not all that surprising.
posted by hollyholly at 10:02 PM on April 9 [2 favorites]


I wish we'd explored the breadth of John B.'s, in his own words, queerness. It felt to me like he may have been in love with the first town clerk, and maybe even had a physical relationship with her, but that's never even entertained.

It’s conceivable, but you’d have to get her to own up to that to make the story work.
posted by Going To Maine at 11:04 PM on April 9


Given that Mary Grace is alive, may or may not have dementia, may or may not be subject (in the past or present or neither or both) to some form of elder abuse, and has in the past couple of years lost her only child in a gruesome suicide swiftly followed by her home, I can see that they might not want to touch her story with a barge pole.
posted by tavegyl at 1:24 AM on April 10 [4 favorites]


It's an interesting demonstration of how we try to storify what is, at the end of it all, a life, loose threads and all. I don't intend a criticism of commentors - my own earlier wondering about Tyler also points to how one instinctively wants a fuller story in a way that rarely exists outside fiction, fictionalisation, and memories of the dead.

It also makes me think about the difference between a 'satisfying' tale and 'unsatisfying' life. In constructing a tale part of the art is to follow a thread, or multiple threads, and to do it in a way which is satisfying and makes a whole so the reader is less tempted to wonder about the inner life of the butcher's apprentice in chapters 3-6. Whether or not there is closure in any thread one may be satisfied as long as there is unity, thematic or otherwise. In a documentary account of a life the frayed threads, and those meandering or attenuating away, are more visible.
posted by tavegyl at 1:37 AM on April 10 [2 favorites]


Going To Main: It’s conceivable, but you’d have to get her to own up to that to make the story work.

Well, nobody else owned up to a sexual relationship with him...
posted by hollyholly at 4:33 PM on April 10


I really enjoyed it but I wished it would have went more into "the "soft-hustle" attractive straight men often use when dealing with gay men, especially closeted ones.' I'm quite ignorant about this practice.

How did Tyler lead him on?
Was it just the sheer amount of time that Tyler spent with John or listening to him? Was it that Tyler (in most instances) enabled John get the tattoos and piercings?

How much depth did Tyler share (his feelings, thoughts on life and his experiences, his future, his kids) with John? Did they ever talk about Tyler's love life or relationship with his girlfriend(s)? When John ranted about climate change, was Tyler actively listening; did he share his thoughts with John?

I ask because I think the extent with Tyler did all of this would be a good level or indicator of the soft-hustle (from my understanding of a soft-hustle) that Tyler did for John and would sate a need of John's.
posted by fizzix at 9:55 AM on April 11 [1 favorite]


Another odd little note on the show is that Brian didn’t learn the phrase “antiquarian horologist” from John himself, but rather from one of his friends. Given John’s predilection for ten-dollar words, it’s an odd thing.
posted by Going To Maine at 10:39 AM on April 11


There is a new Kendrick Lamar album out and yet I am listening to the s-town soundtrack.
posted by Going To Maine at 4:32 PM on April 14 [1 favorite]


I totally believe that Tyler has the gold, but John paid him for all those tattoos in gold bricks. He's fucked from a legal perspective already -- who would believe he has ALL JOHN'S GOLD but attained it legitimately?

I dunno man. Tyler is a criminal, but he isn't smart. I genuinely believe that John MIGHT have told his clerk friend about the gold in a previous suicidal call, she got the convos mixed up because she's traumatized and also not wanting to call possibly ex-gay-lovers. So that's my take, but I'm also from a small rural town where despair is prominent and so is the gossip.

Poor thing drove himself slowly insane with that mercury exposure, and yet still was deeply more intellectual than many of us. Just wow.

Small downs are full of colorful people like this, almost more than cities in my experience. Even my own tiny rural hometown has an urban legend about a series of bootlegging/underground railroad tunnels below the city and whose entrances form a pentagram. Like, small towns may on the surface seem homogeneous and boring, and most are... but not really. There's usually a John B. in every hamlet and I'm so grateful for each unique prospective.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:38 PM on April 16 [3 favorites]


I agree with Unicorn on the cob, let's not underestimate the effect of trauma on that poor clerk, being forced to make phone calls after having to listen to that? I'm surprised she made any, frankly.
posted by Gin and Broadband at 4:04 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]


If Tyler had any gold he would have lost it or spent it already.
posted by Miko at 6:36 AM on April 17


Yeah, Tyler is either the one who screws everything up in A Simple Plan or he's one of the greatest actors of his generation.
posted by Etrigan at 7:45 AM on April 17 [1 favorite]




I still don't quite understand why some people are so fixated on it or why they think it's the case.

I just don't believe in most things that haven't been demonstrated. In my view, in life but also and especially in reporting, the rule isn't "believe things until they're proven doubtful," it's "doubt things until they're proven believable." The fact that John talked about having gold is demonstrated. The fact that he had gold (other than a few bucks' worth of foil) was never demonstrated. It sounds like about the same kind of BS everyone in this scene spun. I guess I've just had enough experience with how often people make shit like this up, encouraging the growth of their own legend, and how readily communities are to gossip about one another.

He wanted to be someone significant. The role of secretly rich guy is a way to get rumors swirling about your hidden powers. But there are a lot of good reasons to be skeptical about the hypothetical gold. Another one is that everyone speculates that the source of the cash he occasionally showered was the gold. But you can't turn gold into cash immediately, and not without generating a record. You are supposed to claim capital gains from the sale of gold on your taxes. Did he? Did the reporter look? How would he have sold this gold for cash - online? If so, he would have had to make a deposit with some sort of credit card to secure delivery. Where are those records? There would be emails, credit card statements, invoices. Did he sell it locally? If so, he'd have had to provide ID and the buyer would have records. If he sold more than $10K worth at a pop (which would not be hard if he had just 4 or 5 bullion "bars" to sell), he'd have to complete required reporting for cash transactions. Did he? Did the reporter look? Ask? Who knows? He didn't even investigate this aspect of things very deeply.

The whole gold bit is best treated as rumor until shown otherwise.
posted by Miko at 2:03 PM on April 17 [1 favorite]


Also, don't you think John B. would have absolutely relished the idea of setting in motion a bunch of credulous, greedy idiots scrambling around for years after his passing, looking for nonexistent gold? A fabulous, dark, final joke.
posted by Miko at 2:27 PM on April 17 [1 favorite]


Also, don’t you think John B. would have absolutely relished the idea of setting in motion a bunch of credulous, greedy idiots scrambling around for years after his passing, looking for nonexistent gold? A fabulous, dark, final joke.

I am unconvinced that he would have relished the idea of making Tyler do so.
posted by Going To Maine at 4:01 PM on April 17 [1 favorite]


The role of secretly rich guy is a way to get rumors swirling about your hidden powers.

Well, yes; but it did seem to me that John B was already playing the role of fairly-conspicuous fairly-well-off guy in his community. Well-off enough to build the maze -- basically a folly -- on his large property. Well-off enough to regularly, and benevolently, hire help. Well-off enough to rescue the tattoo parlor when it was faltering. And well-off enough to always pay cash.

The hidden fortune in gold does feel like a legend, and maybe a self-created legend; but I can kind of see how people were willing to believe it as an embellishment of what they already knew of him. Particularly if it was also well-known that he sometimes worked with gold; and if it was well-known -- if nothing else by him talking about it to anyone who'd listen -- that he was unbanked.

But you can't turn gold into cash immediately

I wondered about that too. It doesn't seem the most practical thing.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 5:52 PM on April 17


Also: the thing which has stuck with me most is the detail of John and Tyler building a giant swing-set for Tyler. Such a strange specific thing.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 6:00 PM on April 17


Well, yes; but it did seem to me that John B was already playing the role of fairly-conspicuous fairly-well-off guy

One guess worth checking out would've been that his mom was well off. In normal cash.

I am unconvinced that he would have relished the idea of making Tyler do so.

I feel like it's possible he'd have told Tyler just about anything to maintain their arrangement.
posted by Miko at 8:18 PM on April 17


Small downs are full of colorful people like this, almost more than cities in my experience.
Where I live we like to say that our small community has all the personality of a city compressed into a thousand people.
posted by borsboom at 6:02 AM on April 18 [3 favorites]


"One guess worth checking out would've been that his mom was well off. In normal cash."

Nail, head.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:22 AM on April 18


Just finished it, thought it was fantastic. A real tour de force of empathetic storytelling. And a deft hand for the elements of story: the missing gold, the lonely rural gay man, the death mysteries.

The jaw-dropping part of the story to me was Tyler casually talking about Church. Or rather, his S&M sex life with John, even if it didn't involve actual genital sex. That is some crazy shit and completely recontextualized all the previous parts about Tyler.
posted by Nelson at 5:32 PM on April 18 [1 favorite]


Frontpage Post.

To me, the most interesting links present there but not here were the takes by people of color on the unspoken missing/understated element of the podcast, courtesy of Lame_username:
posted by Going To Maine at 5:49 PM on April 18 [3 favorites]


"One guess worth checking out would've been that his mom was well off. In normal cash."

Pretty sure they say that John did in fact have a bank account for his mom's expenses etc with 98 dollars in it. Turning up a bank account in Mary Grace's name wouldn't have been that hard would it? Rita would have gained access and surely would have spilled the beans if it has been drained over a decade or so.
posted by Gotanda at 7:41 AM on April 24


Turning up a bank account in Mary Grace's name wouldn't have been that hard would it?

It shouldn't have been, but the reporter never mentioned that he did it. He took Rita's word for that particular detail. Whatever account Rita is talking about isn't, if it existed, necessarily the repository for any/all of her funds. All we know about any money that either John or Mary Grace may have at one time had is what John and/or Rita and/or the guys at the clubhouse said about it. In other words, speculation, hearsay, unproven testimony.

Mary Grace is living well now, going on vacation to see the leaves change.
posted by Miko at 4:02 PM on April 24




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