John B. McLemore lives in S-Town, Alabama

By Molly K. Lichtner, 5/10/17

Warning: If you haven’t listened to S-Town, please stop immediately and listen to all 7 parts in one sitting.  This blog is full of spoilers.

John B. McLemore lives in Shittown, Alabama.  I’m sorry; John B. McLemore lived in Shittown, Alabama.  He’s dead now.

A few years ago John contacted Brian Reed, a producer and presenter from This American Life, and asked him to leave New York and visit Woodstock, Alabama to investigate police corruption and a murder cover-up.  Instead, Brian ended up recording and releasing an in-depth profile of a multifaceted and complex man.  That man was John B. McLemore.

When John talks, it’s impossible to tell if he’s 36 or 66; he sounds timeless, which is fitting because his main source of income was to work on antique clocks.  John was a horologist: someone that studies time.  His personality was full of quirks and inconsistencies: he hated tattoos but was covered in them, he detested the government but was instrumental in founding his hometown, and he was lonely but pushed people away.

There is no denying that John is a genius.  In his backyard he created a hedge maze with over sixty possible solutions.  At the time of his death, it was about knee height, and there’s something poetic about that.  The hedge maze was never completely finished, and neither was John.  The story of his life is also a cautionary tale of being defeated by one’s own hubris; John had people that loved and cared about him, and now through the podcast, that number has grown exponentially.  Should this podcast have been made?  Maybe, maybe not.  Is it an exposé of the horrors of small town police corruption?  At times.  Is it about a man that felt like he was stuck in a shit town?  Yeah, partly.

But why couldn’t—or wouldn’t—John leave Woodstock?  Throughout the podcast, we hear different excuses: he can’t leave the dogs, he can’t leave his Momma, and he can’t leave his land.  But I think the real reason he didn’t leave was because he didn’t think he could fit in or be accepted anywhere else.  Where else would a queer redheaded manic hypocritical genius that preaches about the dangers of climate change and the uselessness of tattoos fit in?  Well, S-Town shows us that John could have—would have—fit in anywhere he met someone that would listen.

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