On S-Town & Other Linguistic Labyrinths

As exemplified by its no. 24 spot on top podcast charts, Shit Town, hosted by NPR’s Brian Reed, was one of the most popular podcasts of the past summer. I first heard significant buzz about it from family members, and as the summer progressed, I started hearing more and more from friends and coworkers. Often driving to visit friends and family on the weekends, I had some time on my hands and decided I would give it a shot. It took me a while to come around because I was initially confused and not very intrigued by descriptions of the podcast. After the first couple of episodes, however I was completely hooked, and I didn’t quite know why.

The best way to explain my experience listening to S-Town is to draw a parallel to a speech my dad gave a couple of years ago. He was starting a new job as head of a school in New Jersey, and that October, he spoke at an assembly thrown to welcome him into the community.

The speech took place in the field house on campus. I immediately noticed my dad seated up on the dais, a wry, nervous smile on his face. I like to think I can read my Dad’s facial expression and body language pretty accurately at this point in my life. Up on the stage sat my dad with the corners of his mouth slightly upturned, occasionally pulling at his mustache, with his left leg crossed over his right and his left foot bouncing almost imperceptibly. But my most important observation had to do with his eyes. They were steely, searching, and laser-focused.

Putting all of this together gave me a momentary feeling of self-transcendence, when I could see the situation from my Dad’s perspective. Excitement shone through his slight foot bounces, nerves made themselves evident through the occasional tug of facial hair, but his eyes proved confidence and command of the situation. And the smile? It basically served as a wink, letting my family know that he was comfortable, and to help put us at ease too. It’s the type of smile that in daily interactions with my Dad almost always precedes a witty quip, facetious reprimand, or the elusive instance of polite sarcasm.

My family and I breathed a collective, shallow, apprehensive sigh and exchanged smiles, nods, winks, or for my younger brother Henry, a cowbite. The speech was long and the first 8 minutes were grim. My dad outlined some of the darkest tragedies or disasters in Western Civilization including the Spanish Flu, the Bubonic Plague, the Crusades, and everything in between. It’s safe to say that the subject matter seemed a little surprising and out of place.The tone throughout this part of the speech was unequivocally sad, maybe even a little hopeless, but his carefully chosen words reverberated through the fieldhouse with self-assurance. People hung on every word. Everyone except for the family and friends in the front row seemed to be wondering: ‘What’s the new guy doing? Where is this speech going?’

There were many moments that had a similar effect on me when I listened to Shit Town. What’s the point, I remember thinking on more than one occasion while listening to the podcast. It seems like this producer might be wasting his time investigating this murder reported to him by a random individual who doesn’t possess a shred of evidence. Who is John B. McLemore, and what does he owe the town of Woodstock? What do the town clerk, buried treasure, a college chemistry professor and an antique clock have to do with one another? There were so many moments during the podcast that were puzzling, downright tragic, or seemingly off-topic. But Reed knew how to keep his audience engaged, and it reminded me of my Dad’s ability to do the same.

My family and I weren’t nervous during the darker part of my dad’s speech. We knew my dad well enough, knew the type of person, writer, and speaker he was. So we sat there hanging on every word like the rest of the audience, but instead of being internally quizzical or confused, we bore looks of patience, recognition, and comfortable familiarity. Sure enough, like a tide rising to meet the wiggling toes of an anxious toddler, the speech reached its climax and leveled out, the themes sinking into for the audience like water into damp sand. My dad explained that in the darkest of times in history, the most important bellwethers for change, progress, and growth were those poets, philosophers, artists and brave individuals who dared to go against the grain or disrupt the social fabric.

This was what listening to S-Town was like: a confusing, beautiful, eclectic story. It’s one in which the listener worries consistently if they’re simply tuned in to hear about the frustrating misfortunes and trials of a brilliant, troubled man somewhere in Alabama, or if there’s actually a point. It takes Reed a long time to get there, and it requires tremendous patience. But I promise that Tyler Goodson’s tattoo parlor, the town clerk of Woodstock, the hedge maze, or the antique clock workshop all contribute in different ways to understanding the point of this podcast.  Just like my experience sitting in that overcrowded, poorly air conditioned field house two years ago, when you’re losing patience and want to tune out or turn off, you can’t because all of a sudden the story or the speaker simply has you. You can’t help but be absorbed, intrigued and empathetic. You can’t help but follow along on a one-of-a-kind journey that brings with it magnificent and exhausting emotional peaks and valleys.