You can lie to your Mama, you can lie to your race
But you can’t lie to nobody with that cold steel in your face.
And the same God that you’re so afraid is gonna send you to hell
Is the same one you’re gonna answer to when the pin hits the shell.
The Drive-By Truckers
John B. McLemore had enough.
Let’s go back to the very first episode of S-Town, when Brian Reed answered the email of an Alabama lunatic to investigate a murder that was supposedly ignored by law enforcement.
Thing is, John B. wasn’t a lunatic. I don’t buy that he had a mental illness. Somebody come at me with facts about mercury poisoning, because I don’t know anything about all that. What I do know, however, is the extent of which John B. had simply had enough. And I don’t know if any of y’all have ever had enough, but when you, in fact, have had e-fucking-nough, you start to do some questionable things. For example, I don’t know, maybe beat somebody’s ass in your best friend’s trailer simply because she said you wouldn’t do it, or I don’t know, something like that. Not that I ever done that, of course.
No, I won’t play the “I’ve been there, I know what he was about” card. But I do empathize with the frustration, and how typical it would be for some rich boy to get away with murder and be able to brag about it. That is something I happen to understand quite well.
I just finished a project on the Dawson family, as a lot of you know because I incessantly sent you drafts to proof. What was the moral of that story? Alabama law enforcement has been, and probably always will be, corrupt. That’s what happens when you mix one part good ol’ boy syndrome to two parts religious hypocrisy. You get George Wallace, Robert Bentley, Don Siegelman, H. Guy Hunt, oh, and Robert Bentley. Each of these Alabama governors was either indicted or faced prison time for things such as, but not limited to: corruption, embezzlement, or lying under oath, and each of them loved Jesus. Alabama knows a thing or two about governmental corruption.
So John B. calling up some swanky-yankee New York investigative journalist to finally take corruption in Alabama seriously is not that far-fetched, lunacy, or what have you. It’s par for the course, and I don’t think that’s a stereotype.
I’m going to say something I don’t think is controversial: S-Town podcast was so fair and well done, and that’s why people are mad about it.
At points, John B. McLemore is a caricature. But he knew that. He was well read enough to assign Brian Reed “A Rose for Emily” before they really got started, which is arguably the most stereotypical depiction of the Southern Gothic ever written. And he assigned it because he identified with it. He thoroughly felt that Faulkner’s most surface-level depiction of the grotesque in the South adequately represented his own life. That self-awareness can’t be understated, and it isn’t something we just can brush off. This was, after all, John B. McLemore’s South—not an attempt to defy H.L. Mencken’s The Sahara of the Bozart by proving that we have something intelligent or valuable to contribute as Southerners. That deal belonged to Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, and Tennessee Williams. Rather, McLemore’s life and criticism of his place were firmly rooted in just how much hasn’t changed in his small-town deep South.
In an article by Connor O’Neill for Vulture, called “Residents of So-called ‘Shit Town’ Are Conflicted Over S-Town,” the reigning sentiments of residents of Woodstock, Alabama are on two sides. First, some of the inhabitants think that John B’s experience wasn’t their own, and they love the town. My retort: Y’all weren’t closeted, obvious queers that cared about science and metaphilosophy rather than Jesus, so of course your experience was fine. The other side of the response comes from the young people in the town, who seemed relieved that their experience of feeling trapped, isolated, and smothered was validated by either a fellow outsider or somebody who made sense and sounded like them.
I would venture to say every small town in Alabama has one, if not several, Bubbas. John’s Bubba, Allan “Bubbu” Cresswell, is a living embodiment of just how meaningful John’s public experience was for either the average Southerner or resident of Woodstock. Bubba was the guy that said something awful and racist in his tattoo shop, and while he was a little mad that the podcast accused him of racism for saying something super racist, he also managed to say this about John’s lashings and back tattoos of being whipped:
Bubba says the tattoo represented “the pain the world goes through just to host us… It’s the closest visual you can get to it. John is resting away. Everything’s collapsing, the world is coming to an end. That’s the part I wish people would understand.”
Do you think he would ever have said something like that without John’s story? No.
This brings me to what I think is the most important part. Sarah Smarsh, an excellent writer who works in what I’m hoping will become the formal discipline of Critical Poverty Studies, writes a lot about the idea of “escaping” the South. I don’t know if she’s written about S-Town, but she makes some excellent points on something I think we all need to think deeply about.
(Smarsh wrote an excellent piece about “poor teeth.” Read that here.)
I “escaped” the South, or at least my rural hometown. You do not have to escape to be happy, thriving, or whatever. I do have problems with some of that because I do feel like my hometown (being 40% below the poverty line) is borderline suffocating and imploding on itself, and I don’t know many people who never wanted to leave. But I know, for a fact, Smarsh is right. People like John B., who was unquestionably a genius, can stay in their place of birth and still have a fulfilling life. But I don’t know that John B. would’ve seen it that way.
Woodstock, the town right between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, is not that poor—the median household income is $36,691, which, for a town of a little over 900 people, is excellent. In Russellville, for example, the median household income was $29,859. I believe Selma, Alabama, with a median income of $22,414, is the poorest town in Alabama.
Poverty unquestionably reduces our abilities to stay in our hometowns. It creates the “brain drain” we see in small town America, where so many kids that make it to college never come back. Because what would they come back to? What engineering firm would my sister become a high-on-the-horse-uppity-executive for in small town Alabama? Where would I become the terrifying liberal-communist university professor, that makes T-Bagger’s lists of scary professors, in small town Alabama? Migration happens for a reason. Smarsh knows what she’s talking about, but it’s hard as hell for people who live in it to see it that way.
I think John B. McLemore’s life and highly publicized death shows the heartbreaking side of what happens to someone that so desperately needs to get out. His death became cautionary, as someone who never and would never fit in his place, that personally cared so deeply about suffering in the world that he couldn’t mend his own. Reed treated his story as an elegy, but people feel that it’s “exploitative,” in my opinion, because Reed faces the bullshit corruption like property disputes, finding the hidden money, lawsuits, and K3 Lumber taking ownership of McLemore’s property with absolute realism. Of course, Tyler Goodson wouldn’t get the money John wanted him to have. Of course Rita, the distant cousin nobody cared about, would try to get all the money. Of course, Kabrahm Burt would buy his property and say, basically, screw this beautiful maze, I’m gonna let it die. That’s why John B. McLemore named it Shit Town, and that’s why he brought Reed to the town in the first place.
Not all of us have to escape. But this is what can happen to somebody that needs to.
Make sure to subscribe by email at the bottom of the page. Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week I’m thinking some fiction. Feel free to recommend something you want me to bitch about or research for your lazy ass. Love you, bye.