What follows contains spoilers for the podcast “S-Town.”
Since its debut, “S-Town” has been captivating listeners and sparking endless discussions. This comes as no surprise, considering “S-Town” has the same producers as “Serial” and “This American Life.” The premise of their new project began with an email from a rural Alabama clock maker, John B. McLemore, to journalist Brian Reed, asking him to investigate a murder, but it turned into so much more. “S-Town” is a modern Southern Gothic, a family drama, a look at small-town America, and most of all, a fascinating character study of a brilliant yet troubled man.
If you binged on every episode of “S-Town” and now wish there were a way to recapture the same excitement, mystery, and intrigue, here’s the reading list for you.
Part of John’s allure is his need to live off the grid in the small town of Woodstock, Alabama. The podcast shines a spotlight on rural America that can be both fascinating and at times shocking. In J.D. Vance’s memoir of small town life he offers another peek behind the curtain of working class people living in near poverty and trying to navigate where they fit into America’s modern tapestry.
John showed his brilliance in many ways, but the one major focus was his trade and enthusiasm in the world of horology (making clocks and watches and studying time). In WHY TIME FLIES, Alan Burdick takes a deeper look into the meaning of time: how we track it (more clock talk!) and why it affects us so greatly.
Guy de Maupassant is not only famous for his short stories but has been credited with inspiring such greats as Chekhov and O. Henry. Several of his works embraced a more cynical view of the human race, and John may have found a kindred spirit in this French author.
If you were fascinated by the horologists and collectors talking about the complex and valuable timepieces that John so expertly restored, this immersive narrative will take you even further into that world. In A GRAND COMPLICATION, two powerful men of the early nineteenth century push the boundaries of mathematics, astronomy, and craftsmanship as they compete to create the most remarkable watch in history.
If you enjoyed the array of personalities in the podcast—the troubled young man, the suspicious distant relatives, the crew at the tattoo parlor, and the outsider observing it all—pick up Sherwood Anderson’s moving collection of interrelated stories, WINESBURG, OHIO. Ohio-born Anderson illuminates the loneliness and frustration—spiritual, emotional, and artistic—of life in a small American town.
Read a review of WINESBURG, OHIO here.
When describing his hunt for buried gold on John’s property, Tyler references Louis Sachar’s HOLES. In this strange and quirky novel, Stanley Yelnats blames a family curse for the misunderstanding that landed him at Camp Green Lake, a juvenile detention center where the inmates are forced to dig holes in the desert daily. But what are they digging for?
Among the imminent dangers plaguing our world, John was particularly troubled by climate change and the refusal by many to acknowledge it. AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH is Al Gore’s groundbreaking battle cry in which he explains with alarming clarity that the consequences of global warming for the world we live in will be disastrous if left unchecked.
In Edgar Allan Poe’s popular Gothic short story “Berenice,” Egaeus is an obsessive man destined to marry his cousin. When she falls ill from a degenerative disease, he cannot help but become fixated on her perfect teeth. It is hard to say why John loved this story so much, but one could make the case that he identified with the obsessive man who became fixated on a single thing and could not let it go.
In an equally heartwarming and heartbreaking episode, John’s horologist friends share their memories of him with host Brian even though they weren’t invited to his funeral. In a similar fashion, Billy Lynch’s friends and family gather to pay their respects in Alice McDermott’s striking novel. CHARMING BILLY is a study of the lies that bind and the weight of familial love, of the way good intentions can be as destructive as the truth they were meant to hide.
Read a review of CHARMING BILLY here.
Possibly the worst part of any “S-Town” episode (or arguably, the best) is when the Zombies’s literary ditty “A Rose for Emily” kicks in and the reality of a shameful binge sets in. In William Faulkner’s Southern Gothic short story “A Rose for Emily,” the titular character has a bit in common with “S-Town’s” John: for one, their fellow townspeople find them peculiar.