In 2012, an eccentric Alabamian named John B. McLemore approached Brian Reed and This American Life with two stories about his hometown. One was about a Sheriff’s deputy who routinely used his position to commit sexual assault. When this story turned out to be true—the deputy was tried and would eventually be convicted—it piqued Reed’s interest, and he began to investigate the other one: McLemore believed that a man had beaten another man to death and that he had used his family connections to avoid the consequences. A small-town establishment closing ranks around the son of a rich man whose business—K3 Lumber—was literally named for a white supremacist secret society… or at least this was what McLemore suspected. Crime, cover-up, conspiracy, corruption, it had all the elements of southern noir, and McLemore believed there was a big picture to be found: “Something’s happened,” he tells Reed. “Something has absolutely happened in this town. There’s just too much little crap for something not to have happened.”
McLemore had a few pieces of the puzzle—he knew some of the “little crap”—but he deferred to Reed’s expertise. This, he said, was Reed’s “stock in trade. … We need people like you to come down to this pathetic little Baptist shit-town and blow it off the map.”
Reed did not blow “this little Baptist shit-town off the map,” as it turned out; if anything, he put Bibb County’s Woodstock, Alabama, on the map. He was fascinated by John, by John’s friend and apparent heir Tyler Goodson, and by “Shittown,” McLemore’s favorite epithet for his home. If McLemore wanted an outsider, an NPR journalist who could bring Yankee disdain for the south to bear, what he got was a fascinated ethnographer whose voyage into Trump’s America never found its heart of darkness. John B. wanted condemnation. But in the seven-hour epic podcast that he eventually made, S-Town, Reed gave him empathy.
Flannery O’Connor once wrote that “anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” A northerner can make two different errors of proportion in misapprehending the rural south, in other words: they can caricature what is normal and they can normalize what is outrageous. In S-Town, Reed does not make the first mistake. Despite McLemore’s best efforts, he refuses to find Shittown grotesque. He attempts to demonstrate to John and to his listeners that the inhabitants of Bibb County are just people like anywhere else, and that, from their perspective, it makes perfect sense to do the variety of things they do.
So when, for example, Tyler Goodson describes and defends his intention to cut off the fingers of a man he suspected had stolen some valuable property from him, Reed is shocked and horrified, but won’t pass judgment. “I’ve tried to understand his justification for some of the choices he makes,” Reed says, opting not to solve the mystery of why Tyler thinks it’s okay to maim someone who has stolen something from him. And when Tyler asks if Reed thinks he’s a bad person—explaining that he wants to know what people think of him—Reed again refuses judgment. “No, man, I see you as a complicated normal person,” he says. “I disagree with some of your decisions. But you’ve also had a very different life experience than I’ve had.”
The way that Reed says “man” in that moment—the “man” that one man says to another man to remind them both that they are men, together—speaks to the social bond they’ve built, as a subject and an informant have also become friends. Tyler is testing that bond, asking Reed to stand in for “what people think” and pass judgment on him, inviting him to choose between saying what he really thinks—that such violence is horrific and indefensible—and in re-affirming that they are buddies, and that no explanation is necessary. Reed takes the latter path. He does not call Tyler innocent, but neither does he say that it is vile to cut off a man’s fingers because you think he stole something from you. Put differently: Reed holds Tyler to lower standards than the basic decency of not dismembering other people. Tyler, you see, has had “a very different life experience.”
Withholding judgment seems like a key part of how Reed gets informants to open up. This is the approach he takes atThis American Life, where, as he’s explained, “Every kind of interview is trying to understand people’s experience, no matter where they are.” This gets him access to a variety of different people with different agendas; he convinces them all that he is listening, sympathetically, to them.“If you listen to them a long time,” he says, “and not cut them off, that builds trust, and, just in general, try not to be shitty to people and try to be up-front about what you’re doing, and be honest.”
I want to suggest another interpretation, one that Reed’s closeness to Tyler does not allow him to explore: Sometimes judgment is warranted. We know Tyler runs with a rough crowd, but Reed presents that “roughness” in terms of colorful eccentricities. When Reed interviews the crew that gathers at Black Sheep Ink, we see them in the same gentle and charitable light in which they cast themselves: they are cast out, maligned and despised, social outcasts. And yet the story of the snippers in the shed tells us that Tyler can be violent and dangerous. What if he doesn’t see it as a decision he needs to justify, and doesn’t worry all that much about the ethics of crime and punishment? Reed portrays him as haunted by fears that he’ll turn out to be like his father, and perhaps this is true. But it also might be that Tyler knows how to tell a story in which he is the victim of great oppression, and that he’s very, very good at telling that story—and it might also be that he knows exactly the kind of story Reed wants to hear. It might be that he was testing Reed to see if he would buy that story, and if he would fall into the second trap that Flannery O’Connor described, of looking at something legitimately disturbing and refusing to call it what it is: grotesque.
It might be that he succeeded in utterly controlling the story that Brian Reed told. It might be that the price Reed paid for access, the exchange he made for his subject’s trust, was becoming “trustworthy,” becoming someone that would tell the story the way someone like Tyler Goodson would tell it.
Here is the context in which I heard these voices.
I grew up around Confederate flags and rednecks, in a part of the country where getting in the car, now, means taking a tour of Donald Trump yard-signs. I wasn’t born there and I didn’t stay there, but I spent my primary and secondary schooling in a place where being beaten up by a redneck was a latent structural fact of life. When I first listened to this podcast, I was absorbed and transported by its familiarity: the craft is magnificent and its construction sublime. It’s also incredibly real. Every voice sparked memories; John might seem like a one-of-a-kind, but hearing him instantly reminded me of any number of gifted hillbilly eccentrics I’ve known, red-state liberals whose local roots run deep and murky.
And then a friend sent me a link to Tyler Goodson’s Facebook page, and the spell was broken. I looked at Tyler, and instead of hearing his voice, I saw someone who looked terribly familiar. I saw someone who, when I was eighteen, I would have feared. I saw a redneck, and I remember being afraid of violent rednecks who called me things like “bitch boy.”
I think that John did too. When he tells the third-hand story of Dylan Nichols’ beating, he imbues it with half-spoken implications about how masculinity is policed, and of the kind of violence that a boy who is any kind of queer learns to be afraid of. I’m not gay, but it was through fear that I learned to act straight, and I remember what happened to kids whose masculinity didn’t measure up.
I moved away when I was eighteen, but because John remained, he must have gained a perspective on the young rednecks of Shittown that I was never able to acquire. Through all his anger and contempt, he saw them as redeemable. John’s insight into Tyler’s background and upbringing gave him the ability to see past his flaws, and to work to help him become a better person. John might not have been religious, but there’s a Christianity to that which I cannot help but admire.
Empathy will help you understand how people see themselves and tell their story. But it takes a little skepticism and a little fear to track when that story becomes self-serving bullshit.
But just as “S-Town” is a version of “Shittown” that you can say on the air, the Tyler Goodson we hear is an airbrushed version of the real thing. At no point does Brian Reed mention the Confederate flag tattoo on Tyler Goodson’s shoulder; you have to go to Tyler Goodson’s Facebook page to see it, along with pictures of his children sitting on a Confederate flag blanket and an image of the Confederate flag with the caption “It’s a Goodson thing, you wouldn’t understand.” Perhaps Reed decided that the Confederate flag is “heritage, not hate”; perhaps he realized that his listeners would be less likely to see Tyler as an unfairly maligned outcast if they saw him wearing a symbol of race hate on his body. Perhaps he thinks we wouldn’t understand this “Goodson Thing,” and so he protects us from it.
The Confederate flag is complicated. It’s hate, but it is, also, heritage: I grew up with people who would insist that it had nothing to do with racism, and I understand why an uneducated white person would cling to that story of himself and his place in the world. Self-respect is precious, and there are precious few ways to get it in a world that doesn’t value you; until you understand how un-valued a rural, uneducated redneck is—how much contempt they feel pouring onto them every time they open their mouth among their betters—you won’t understand that side of what “heritage” means.
But “it’s complicated” works both ways. If it’s heritage, it is, also, inescapably, hate. That’s the bargain. And heritage-as-hate is dangerous and violent. Heritage-as-hate is why Donald Trump is president, and why his attorney general is a vicious racist from Alabama named Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, as authentic a son of the soil as any other. It’s why the fear of what might be done to me when I was in school—in the playground, in the hallway, and after school—has become a latent structural fact of American life today (particularly to non-white people, but not only to them, either).
“Empathy for the Trump voter” might be an important part of any account of the world we are living in, but it’s not the whole story. Empathy will help you understand how such people see themselves and tell their story. But it takes a little skepticism and a little fear to track when that story becomes self-serving bullshit. When those for whom heritage is hate are in charge, you learn that whiteness is complicated, but it’s not that complicated. I don’t think Brian Reed ever learned that. He has described being “a white, straight dude, so I have a bit of luxury of getting into places like that and not having to change all that much…I have the luxury of not having to do that.” But there are all sorts of lines he was careful not to cross; he had to hide his wife’s race and his own Jewish ancestry. He had to withhold his judgment, and remain silent. He had the “luxury” of keeping silent, of keeping his Facebook profile private.
Not only journalists keep silent. For all its faults, the most interesting and powerful part of Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels is the moment when, after months of carousing with bikers, Thompson tells a man who is beating his wife that he’s a “punk” for doing so, and, in response, the biker viciously attacked him. It’s the climax of the book because it reveals the limit to the access he acquired: He threatened the man’s masculinity, and he was brutally beaten for doing so. Thompson’s field work ended here. When the beatings begin, you learn just how much protection your “empathy” will provide. You learn that while the bully can tell a story about their own humanity, the person on the receiving end doesn’t have that luxury.
I find myself remembering where I’m from, these days, after many years of putting it behind me. I find myself remembering what I had known when I was growing up: that whiteness will always find someone to violate, and that nothing is more violent than an insecure masculinity.
Brian Reed might have learned something if he had been honest with his interlocutors, if he had told them he was Jewish and that his wife is a black woman. He might have gotten a glimpse of the violence that makes places like that what they are.
Reed was working on his podcast for years—years in which few anticipated a President Donald Trump, or the kind of license he would give to violent ethno-nationalism. I’m sure he never expected the resonance that his story would suddenly acquire, a moment in which empathy with Trump voters has become a journalistic staple, and in which books like Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers in their Own Land have become the keys to understanding red-state America. It nevertheless joins that emerging bibliography: because S-Town was released in a moment when the violent impunity of whiteness is in full bloom, when many white people are learning that their whiteness will not protect them, and when it has never been more important to understand the violence of a wounded masculinity, it cannot help having something to say about it. And yet it tries. It tries very hard not to.
Reed has nothing to say about whiteness. Everyone in the podcast is white, but with a stereotypically Connecticut politeness, Reed avoids bringing it up. He doesn’t mention, for example, that both the Sheriff’s deputy and the woman he was prosecuted for raping are black. And maybe that’s the right choice; maybe it isn’t pertinent. But it certainly ispertinent that everyone in the podcast is white, and Reed doesn’t mention that either. He doesn’t have to mention it because whiteness is the default, which is extremely pertinent. And the most pertinent fact of all is that this podcast could only have been made by a white man, which means that the perspective it takes of its subjects—the care and empathy it lavishes on them—produces an audience, in turn, as white-by-default as its subjects. As Maaza Mengiste observed, this is a podcast for white people.
When a southerner insists that a Confederate flag is a symbol of heritage, not hate, they are insisting that the flag means what they say it means: while you might take it as the symbol of the confederacy, the KKK, lynching, Jim Crow, and segregation—and while you might see a threat against your life (if you happen not to be white)—they will insist that it means none of these things, that it’s simply an expression of pride in being Southern. Perhaps this is what Tyler would have said that his tattoos mean; perhaps he is not a vicious bigot like his partner (“Bubba”) in the Black Sheep Ink tattoo parlor, and perhaps he’s just a good old boy who loves the place he comes from and honors his heritage.
If you’d like to extend the argument to the swastika as an expression of German heritage—not hate—you are welcome to do so. In the real world, we know what the Confederate flag means, and what it means to tattoo one on your white skin. No one knows this better than people running a tattoo shop in Alabama. There is an obvious reason why Bubba, as Reed notes, “displays a rather fluent knowledge of various white supremacy groups,” after all: white supremacy has a detailed iconography, and if you’re going to stay in business, a smart tattoo artist serving that clientele will learn to tell a Celtic cross from an Iron Cross from the crossed pair of pistons from the crossed Stars and Bars of the Confederate battle flag and the swastika. There are differences; of course there are differences. But there are also similarities.
Reed doesn’t ask Tyler what his tattoos mean—or doesn’t share his answers with his audience—and leaves the meaning that tattooing has for his subjects as unexplored as he does their sense of race. We learn that McLemore hated tattoos but had himself tattooed, and Reed implies that John B.’s whip-lash tattoos were, in some obscure sense, an engagement with the southern legacy of racial slavery and atrocity. But we certainly never learn what meanings the rest of this tattooed group of black sheep have elected to inscribe onto their skin. We never learn what whiteness means to them, or to the people they might have hurt.
I wonder if the man whose fingers Tyler proposed to cut off was black. Probably not, right? Brian Reed would have surely mentioned it, and he doesn’t say anything about the man’s race. But because he doesn’t say anything about anybody’s race, I wonder if he asked. Not that it matters. Racism is the tool and the opportunity for those whose heritage is hate. If they don’t find that one, they’ll find another one. There’s always another one.
By the end of the podcast, you realize how wrong John B. was when he suggested that digging up dirt was Brian Reed’s stock-in-trade. For all its magnificent intricacy and beauty, the show he produced is a work of creative non-fiction, not public-interest journalism. The difference matters. S-Town is literary, explicitly patterned after novels, and utterly successful at what it does—as an exploration and imagination of character, it is engrossing and deeply moving. But it doesn’t pass muster as journalism; it is, at best, journalism-adjacent.
It is, in this sense, a lot like another This American Life production: Mike Daisey’s exploration of abuses at the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China—which Brian Reed produced, and which is also, at best, journalism-adjacent. When it was revealed that Daisey’s theater piece was composed out of significant fabrications, Daisey insisted that nothing was wrong, by clarifying that “What I do is not journalism”: “it uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story,” he explained, “and I believe it does so with integrity.”
Brian Reed’s podcast might also tell its story “with integrity.” But what does that mean? When Reed chose to put an off-the-record conversation with a dead person on the record—rationalizing that it was okay because that person was dead and didn’t believe in the afterlife—he made a choice that a lot of journalists might not have. Maybe he made that choice because he’s not a journalist. And maybe, like Mike Daisey, he takes dramatic license with the facts in service of the real story. With This American Life, these distinctions can get blurry, which is why Daisey’s one-man-show created such a controversy. On the stage, we don’t expect everything to be fact-checked; on the radio, in a time slot somewhere between All Things Considered and Morning Edition, we might expect exactly that.
On This American Life’s “About” page, we find this clarification: “We think of the show as journalism,” it reads, though the journalism they do also “tends to use a lot of the techniques of fiction,” and “the fiction we have on the show functions like journalism.”
Does that clarify things? Or does it muddy them beyond recognition?
For all the magnificent, clock-like precision and construction of its storytelling, it’s the questions it leaves unanswered that make S-Town what it is.
I wonder, for example, what John B. McLemore’s relationship was with the police. In the first episode, in a scene that Reed almost plays for laughs, we hear McLemore complaining that the “praetorian class” are in his yard, at 1 a.m., attempting to search his house without a warrant. It’s a hilarious turn of phrase to use for redneck cops, and it serves to sketch out John B.’s characteristic mode of ironic locution. But why were the police in his yard at one in the morning, and what were they trying to find? Did Reed ever learn? Did he ask? When he spoke to the county police, and when they told him that they had investigated Kaybrum Burt’s beating of someone named “Dylan”—which did happen, even if it didn’t result in the boy’s death, as John B. initially alleged—did he simply accept their explanations that no one wanted to press charges, and so there was nothing to investigate? Did he ever speak to the Dylan who was beaten? Did he find out what really happened?
How quick was he to accept the story he wanted to tell, and how hard did he work to disprove it?
McLemore was many things, after all, but one of them was a paranoid. He believed in crazy, paranoid things like global warming and police corruption; as he once quoted William S. Burroughs, a paranoid is someone who “knows a little of what’s going on,” And John knew more than a little. But Brian Reed isn’t interested in John’s theories. “If I was making it for him, it would be three chapters about peak oil,” he said of the podcast. “But I’m not making it for him. I’m making it about him.”
Brian Reed is definitely not a paranoid. When John B. McLemore proposed that Reed write a journalistic expose of a small-town conspiracy of silence between police, powerful business interests, and respectable citizens, Reed debunked that theory by interviewing the supposed killer and the killer’s father, scanning the local press, and having a conversation with the police. This puts his mind to rest: on the basis of their say-so, he is convinced that nothing is amiss. And yet it takes only a small amount of paranoia to suggest that maybe the cops were lying to him—the fact that “nobody wanted to press charges” is a good, official way to close a case they don’t want to pursue. It takes only a small amount of paranoia to suggest that Kendall Burt’s statement that he would never try to cover up his son’s crimes is something less than an iron-clad piece of evidence. I am paranoid enough to think that Kaybrum Burt’s own account of how he “beat the piss” out of another boy is almost certainly not the only side of that story. I would have liked to know what the kid he beat up thinks about it.
Stories may be like clocks, but lives are like time: they vary depending on how you look at them, and can be measured in any number of wildly different ways, each uniquely true and utterly irreconcilable.
It may or may not be relevant to note that the hour-long segment of This American Life that Brian Reed produced on policing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—what he characterizes in S-Town as a segment on “police abuses”—is entitled Cops See It Differently. When I listened to it, it sounded a lot like embedded journalism. It’s a segment in which cops believe what they are saying, and in which the liars turn out to be black people hiding a gun in a crib; it is, as its title suggests, a nuanced exploration of how things look from the police side of the blue line. It’s a story told with integrity, about how the man who re-introduced Stop-and-Frisk to Milwaukee is a liberal reformer. In response to Black Lives Matter, it is a work of narrative empathy with police.
It makes me think about another choice that Reed made: when John B. McLemore presented him with two stories, Reed chose to pursue the one that he could disprove, rather than the one that was true. But if a journalist working in the public interest might investigate police corruption and violent abuse of power, it’s not surprising that an entertainer would look for the kind of story that would make us feel good; it’s not surprising that he was most interested in a colorful eccentric southerner, and in the grotesque southern noir that turns out, in the end, not to be anything of the sort.
The “something” that John suspected of happening may not, in the end, have happened that time, or in that place, or that way. But John was right, in a larger sense. Something definitely happened. It’s happening all the time. Sometimes it makes the news when an openly queer teenager is murdered—one county north of Bibb County—but sometimes, we can be sure, it doesn’t. When the sheriff investigating the murder of Nicholas Hawkins told the press that it wasn’t a hate crime, it turns out that this knowledge is based on the fact that “we haven’t discussed that with anybody yet, about the motive.” The sheriff seemed in no hurry to ask those kinds of questions.
A lot of knowledge is produced in just this way, by not asking questions. And for all its careful exploration of John B. McLemore’s psyche, there are so many questions that S-Town doesn’t ask. It will eventually transpire that the town clerk who apparently spoke to John B. just before he killed himself made a point not to call the people he had asked her to call; it will transpire that John B.’s cousin Rita thinks Tyler killed John B., somehow, and that his horologist friends suspect foul play as well. They all have good reasons to be suspicious: everyone knew that John B. had a tremendous amount of un-banked gold, possibly millions of dollars, and that gold was never found. We know that John B. had a deep grievance against the patriarch of the KKK Lumber—how did Rita come to sell his house to that very person? It seems clear that when Tyler was stealing from John B.’s property, the police were explicitly helping him do it—what sort of criminal conspiracy was this?
When we hear that Tyler has four children by three different women, and that he loves his children, and struggles to support them, we hear nothing from the women themselves about whether this is true.
More worrying, considering the focus on the disposition of John B.’s property: Reed doesn’t give us the voice of its actual owner, John B’s mother, Mary Grace. This is a remarkable, consequential omission. The entire story revolves around her, in a concrete way, but we never hear her side of it. We are told by Rita that she is doing much better, having been removed from the care of John B., but we do not hear confirmation of that fact. We do not know what happened to her at all.
Clocks are built: clocks have a purpose, and when they break, they can be repaired. A life is not so simple, and neither is a town. Every story hides three more, and each of those stories cover over a dozen others. Stories may be like clocks, but lives are like time: they vary depending on how you look at them, and can be measured in any number of wildly different ways, each uniquely true and utterly irreconcilable. A clock takes the vast infinity of time and makes it into a simple continuum of numbers. Like a clock, a story is a machine for excluding everything that isn’t part of it.
Paranoia is knowing a little bit about that process of exclusion, about the way that stories are composed by leaving things out. And just as it’s rational to observe that climate change is real—however paranoid it may make you seem to rant and rave about how the world is ending and no one is doing anything—it’s equally reasonable to anticipate that the police will lie to a reporter digging around on a cold case, or that a young man might be less than forthcoming when asked by a stranger about the time he bragged about killing another boy. It might be paranoid to suspect that a local paper wouldn’t include any mention of whatever it is that happened, but it’s far from unreasonable. It’s not paranoid to suggest that someone who co-owns a tattoo parlor with an avowed white supremacist—in Bibb County, Alabama—might also be a white supremacist. Tyler might not have maimed that thief with a pair of garden snippers that time, but will the next suspected thief be as lucky? Was the previous one?
A paranoid assumes that everyone is lying to them until proven otherwise, and perhaps even then; to John, everyone was a little bit full of shit. But Reed sees every glass as half-full—he is credulous, empathetic, and gentle to his sources. When Reed listens to Tyler and then Rita describe the days immediately following John B.’s death, he observes, with amazement, that everything they say matches up—that the facts are all in alignment, even if the stories they ultimately tell are different. This demonstrates to him the dangers of being overly suspicious: “Going to Bibb County taught me something about people—at least, the people of Bibb County—and that is that people’s minds will go to paranoid, conspiratorial places very easily,” he says. “I was surprised at how quickly very reasonable people would jump to be suspicious of others.”
S-Town isn’t fiction—we can probably assume that the facts, as we are given them, are “accurate.” But mere accuracy doesn’t make it journalism: the private details of private lives have no clear public interest, and Brian Reed never seriously argues that they do. It’s creative non-fiction, then, a category whose very name is composed out of negations: not fiction, but not non-fiction, either; true, but created. And so the fact that he never finds anything—that nothing happened—is what he finds at the end of his investigation, the discovery that the very opposite of something happened. He finds that something didn’t happen, in a half-dozen different ways, and that it didn’t happen for everyone in a variety of fascinating ways: the murder, the gold, and the conspiracy of silence… He finds none of it, only the story of how he set out to look. And then out of this series of negations, he wraps it all up, neatly, so that we can all go home, entertained.
By the end of the podcast, you come to realize that the monologue that opened it—a monologue about clocks and how they are reconstructed—is really about Brian Reed’s own process, about reconstructing a life. “Sometimes entire portions of the original clockwork are missing,” he says, “but you can’t know for sure because there are rarely diagrams of what the clock is supposed to look like. A clock that old doesn’t come with a manual.” John B. McLemore is the clock, and the testimony Reed has gathered, over long years of work, are the “witness marks” a clock-restorer uses to guide their way, “impressions and outlines and discolorations, left inside the clock, of pieces that might’ve once been there.”
“Fixing an old clock can be maddening,” Reed says. “You’re constantly wondering if you’ve just spent hours going down a path that will likely take you nowhere, and all you’ve got are these vague witness marks which might not even mean what you think they mean. So, at every moment along the way you have to decide if you’re wasting your time or not.”
Reed did not waste his time; S-Town was a smash from the start, a career-making triumph. But in their original function, clocks are not made for entertainment. Clocks are tools that make social life possible. A clock makes time, and organizes it, and time is, ultimately, a social medium: we use it to coordinate with others and to communicate; a sense of shared time helps us meet each other and find each other and arrange the stories that we tell about each other—it allows us to take our turns speaking and listening, and it allows us to put things into their proper perspective. Without clocks—or without some sense of shared time, however constructed—society, as we know it, would not be possible.
John lived in his own time zone, literally: as Reed mentions, John B. McLemore’s house did not observe daylight saving time, so depending on the season, the time at his house might be an hour different than the surrounding area. It’s a good reflection of his relation to his world, his insistent eccentricity reflected in his own, personal, zone of time. It’s a good joke, a playful irony, even a self-consciously Faulknerian expression of being southern, a quiet little rebellion against unification under the guise of turning back the clock. It’s also totally ridiculous, which John surely understood: since all time is social, the idea of having your own time zone is absurd, only meaningful in the irony of its meaninglessness.
Moreover, for all his scrupulous attention to reconstructing the original function of a clock, the irony of clock restoration is that John didn’t repair clocks for their original function. His clocks were repaired to be old, to be antiques: the point of “restoring” them was not simply to make them work—that’s easy enough to do—but to make them work exactly as they once did. That’s why John hand-ground a gathering pallet from scratch. “They aren’t trying to simply make the clock work again,” Reed says of the fraternity of horologists. “Their goal is to preserve and reconstruct the original craftsmanship as much as possible.” Recovering and replicating the inspiration of the original clockmaker makes them valuable enough to sell, but it’s the sale that matters.
After all, clock restoration serves no useful function in a world where we all have clocks on our phones (the same phones we might use to listen to a podcast). In a world where networked clocks are everywhere, an antique clock is so big, heavy, and fragile that it isn’t useful in that sense. Instead, an antique clock’s eccentricity becomes valuable because of how odd it is, how particular, and how much work goes into restoring it. When people pay for a restored antique, they are paying for an incredibly laborious lack of useful value: so much work went into making them work again, but because that work is totally superfluous and unnecessary, it is thus, perversely, worth paying for.
If an old clock is valuable because of the perfectly recovered eccentricity of its original intention, the same could be said about John B. McLemore’s own perverse life, and for that matter, this podcast. So much work went into making it, but what, after everything, is this podcast actually for?
When John B. McLemore heard the earliest draft of Reed’s program, the story of the murder of that didn’t happen, his reaction was disappointment: “I can’t believe how much you’ve worked on this son of a bitch and at the same time,” he sighed, “my god.” Reed wanted him to be relieved, to be happy about the work, and is audibly upset that he isn’t. Perhaps John B. was in a bad mood, even a depressive episode; perhaps that was why he wasn’t sufficiently appreciative. Perhaps his original fit of enthusiasm for activist journalism had long passed—it had, after all, been years since he originally contacted Reed—and he had a different perspective on the story Brian Reed was telling. When Reed observes that “I am not saving the world over here,” John’s retort that “You are definitely not saving the world!” is delivered with a peculiar, bitter intensity, the laugh of someone who once thought it was possible, perhaps, but no longer does. What’s the point of all that work if it can’t save the world?
John B. isn’t cruel, though: “I think you’ve done pretty goddamned good,” he says, finally. And he’s absolutely right—one can only admire how well Brian Reed reconstructed his clock. But what is the point of it? What does it do?
I am writing this and you are reading it because we are sharing a moment: we have all listened to this podcast, the timepiece that Brian Reed built to bring us together. But what do we do with this unity? Across the seven hours of Reed’s production, we are told a story in which we all can understand each other, talk to each other, and hear each other: we can unite in admiration for John B., for the genius that was born to Mary Grace, for his voice, and for the power of storytelling. We can hear his voice and be united in our appreciation for his existence. Is this what we need now? Does it tell us our time? Does it bring us together? Does it help us understand what it means to have Donald Trump as president, and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions as the most powerful cop in the land? Or is it simply a nostalgic exercise in anachronism, like a perfectly restored antique? Is it something we value because it does something, or because it feels old and authentic?
I don’t know. In the end, all it offers is questions.