Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The reading list of John B. McLemore



The first time I heard the voice of John B. McLemore on the “S-Town”podcast, I recognized it.

I didn’t know John B., not like that anyway. And I didn’t run into him in the course of reporting news stories in Alabama. Not that I can remember anyway. But it was his personality, and a few works of literature, that made me and others feel like I recognized him. News that a movie is about to made about “S-Town,” the story of a Bibb County, Ala., antique clock restorer and his menagerie of friends and concerns, had me looking for McLemore recently in a few works of short fiction.

First, my own part in this story. I am a reporter for the Alabama Media Group, and my work appears on our website, AL.comhttps://www.al.com/, as well as in The Birmingham News, The Huntsville Times and the Press-Register of Mobile. On March 27, 2017, the day before the “S-Town” podcast was released, I was told to go to Woodstock, Ala., and find out what I could about a murder case the podcast supposedly centered around. All we knew, in the weeks leading up to its release, was from a teaser featuring the reporter, Brian Reed, talking about a news tip he had received about a murder in Bibb County, a rural area sandwiched between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. Weeks before, I had written a post about it, embedding the short audio teaser. A day later, I received an anonymous tip telling me that the angry voice recorded in the teaser had to be a man named John B. McLemore, who had killed himself in 2015. The tipster conveniently dropped a link to McLemore’s online obituary.

Mid-morning on the 27th, I was asked to go to Bibb County. I hastily got on the road, listening to as much of the first two episodes of “S-Town” as I could, and embarked on a whirlwind tour of Woodstock. I found McLemore’s grave, talked to townspeople, some of whom had no idea who I was talking about. Then I happened to find a core of people who led on to others, and within a few hours, I had a story. Through what I gathered, I could see that “S-Town” probably was not about a murder but about the strange figure buried in Green Pond Cemetery under a makeshift monument, the maze of his life and motives, and a supposed treasure buried in some undiscovered place. (Keep in mind, I had to write this not knowing what the podcast might say in the following episodes or how it might tell the story.) Though I had no idea how popular “S-Town” would become, the day before it debuted, I did stand before McLemore’s grave marveling at how someone’s forgotten life can suddenly be resurrected years after they’ve gone. Anyone who ever read “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” will know this is true.

When I say I recognized John B., I mean this: After working in newsrooms in the South for nearly 30 years, his is the voice I invariably hear whenever I pick up the phone to receive an anonymous news tip – the aggrieved, know-it-all accuser who is sure the real story hasn’t been told because the right people have been bought off, who doesn’t know why he’s calling you because you’re mixed up in it too, who can’t be told the truth because he can’t be bothered with the truth since it spoils the gossip he is marinating in. Newspapers have always been catnip to the functionally insane. When you get these calls, you have to take them seriously because even crazy people can be right about things. But that doesn’t ignore the fact that the truth may come out of the mouth of someone who isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks, knows something third-hand and therefore radically different than what actually happened, and will give you one nugget of information after you’ve sifted through hours of conversation. It’s the voice of someone who enjoys listening to himself pontificate on the affairs of the world, sort of like someone who writes a blog…

Anyway, I, like others, eventually became fascinated with Reed’s telling of McLemore’s story. Anyone with an interest in Southern literature would recognize and nod in familiarity at the story that unfolds. So many people have compared John B. to Ignatius J. Reilly, the eccentric genius in John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Reilly’s clothes are an assault on the senses, he fills notebooks with his observations on the world where the “gods of Chaos, Lunacy and Bad Taste” reign, and he cares for his long-suffering mother. One character says of him, “I thought he was a performer of some sort when I first came in, although I tried not to imagine the nature of his act.” Reilly’s act, though, takes place in New Orleans, matching character to place, and his Catholicism stands at odds with McLemore’s militant Hitchensesque atheism. The story of the novel’s success long after its author had committed suicide also strikes a chord.

At times, John B. also seems a character out of Flannery O’Connor’s universe. More than one listener recalled “Revelation,” which follows a day in the life of Mrs. Turpin, the survivor of a strange encounter in a doctor’s waiting room, where eyes gravitate occasionally to a strangely distinctive clock. A woman in the room, who believes the worst thing in the world is an “ungrateful person,” later says, “I think people with bad dispositions are more to be pitied than anyone on earth.” The encounter, and an unexpected attack by an unstable young woman, makes Mrs. Turpin wonder about the state of her eternal soul. Again, the story’s Christian sensibilities seems a world away from John B.’s rantings about “Jeebus.”

But upon his arrival in Alabama, Brian Reed mentions three stories McLemore told him to read – “The Necklace,” by Guy de Maupassant, “The Renegade” by Shirley Jackson, and “A Rose for Emily,” by William Faulkner.

The first thing I noticed about all three is their focus on female characters, and how they all struggle within the social expectations of their settings. All of the three main characters have a feeling of being trapped, even tortured. And all seem to feel themselves outsiders.

Take “The Necklace.” Mathilde, the woman at the center of the story, is described in the first paragraph as having “no means of becoming known, understood, loved or wedded.” “She wanted so much to charm, to be envied, to be desired and sought after.” Anyone who listened to “S-Town” can immediately see a connection with the enigmatic McLemore, whose profane, haunted, irreconcilable persona seemed to camouflage a man who felt misunderstood and very much alone.

The Cinderella-like plot of the story gives the woman an evening of what she wants – a party where she is exquisitely dressed and able to present herself in exactly the way she has dreamed, with the addition of a borrowed diamond necklace from a friend with means. I immediately wondered what crossed John B.’s mind when he suddenly found the reporter he had contacted on his Bibb County property, recording his thoughts on climate change and economic collapse.

The splendor of the party, though, doesn’t last long for Mathilde, as she is immediately reminded of her lack of means when the other women of the ball wrap themselves in their expensive furs. As she and her husband wander back to their lives, they are horror struck to learn the necklace is missing. When they are unable to find it, her husband has the idea to replace it, which costs much more than they could ever afford. Somehow they borrow the money, “return” the necklace, and slowly begin to repay their loans, knowing in detail “the horrible life of the very poor.” It takes a decade.

Years later, Mathilde, proud that they have somehow survived yet broken by the hardships,  sees the friend who loaned her the necklace, and confesses what happened. Then she, and we, learn the original necklace was only a cheap imitation. We are broken along with her at the cruelty of life, and the waste. This awful thing, that I have been so proud of, need never have happened.  All of these things I have denied myself, including pleasure, contentment, have been stolen from me, as well as the one idea that gave my life meaning.

Like other works of Shirley Jackson, “The Renegade” is situated in the casual violence of everyday life. Mrs. Walpole makes breakfast for her children and her husband, silently ticking away to herself the many tasks she has left for the day. We are given the demands of a housewife who only has so many hours in a day to satisfy the many needs of her family, while silently recording the slights that come when they don’t seem to notice her.

But an unexpected problem presents itself, even before she has a chance to eat. The telephone rings. The family dog, it seems, has been down the road, killing chickens. Mrs. Walpole doesn’t believe it. She thinks this is the country people who have it in for them because they are city folks. But, as neighbors remind her in their rural wisdom, once a dog has a taste for blood, it has to be put down. She is horrified at the thought. What about the dog? What about the children? Why must this be so? Maybe it wasn’t our dog? She clings to the idea of some other way, perhaps correcting the dog. But the steadily escalating cruelty of the suggestions disgusts her.

By the time she comes home to gather herself, the dog, Lady, returns. She is covered in blood, and oblivious to any problems. She is a dog, and not a moral being.

“Mrs. Walpole’s first impulse was to scold her, to hold her down and beat her for the deliberate, malicious pain she had inflicted, the murderous brutality a pretty dog like Lady could keep so well hidden in their home; then Mrs. Walpole, watching Lady go quietly and settle down in her usual spot by the stove, turned helplessly and took the first cans she found from the pantry shelves and brought them to the kitchen table.”

But there is more pain. When the children, Judy and Jack, arrive home from school, they too have heard about Lady’s antics, and what must be done to put her down. Instead of mourning the unfairness of life, or a sad necessity of removing the threat of the dog from the neighborhood, they are excited – expectant! – about what must be done to Lady. They have heard how the dog could be tortured, and they laughingly swap telling aloud the details of how the dog’s head might be cut off. Mrs. Walpole, lightheaded, retreats feeling “the harsh hands pulling her down, the sharp points closing in on her throat.”

I thought of John B. lamenting the cruelty of his home, the indifference of his Baptist neighbors to suffering wherever it might be in the world, whether in Woodstock or Africa or wherever. But by the end of “S-Town,” Brian Reed reminds us that McLemore himself could be capable of incredibly cruelty and indifference, racial and sexual slurs and callousness even to those closest to him. A casual reader who knows nothing of “S-Town” can still sympathize with Mrs. Walpole’s feeling that the world has brutally misunderstood you and does not care, that the illusions of civility and civilization are nothing more than childish, magical thinking.

Every chapter of "S-Town" ends with The Zombies “A Rose for Emily,” a melancholy song which evokes the gothic splendor of Faulkner’s short story. Reading it, I was struck by how unlike everything else in Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha mythology it is, yet it is perhaps his most anthologized story. The tale, set in Faulkner’s familiar town of Jefferson, follows the life of Miss Emily Grierson, “dear, inescapable, impervious, tranquil, and perverse.” Not all of these words would fit in describing John B. McLemore. When Faulkner uses the word "perverse," he gives it the original meaning – as in a deliberate aim to run counter to expectations. Born Southerners recognize the type: Characters. People of means or no means, determined to be strangers, irreconcilable to themselves and others, providing the spice and dash and color of existence, like pieces in a clock marking the seasons and eras of our ridiculous enthusiasms. The Southern freak, as O’Connor might identify the species, is such a staple of the literature that it hardly seems worth talking about. Miss Emily hides her crazy better than others, for a very long time, but it eventually blooms, in all its weird and twisted magnificence.

The story is simple enough – Miss Emily never marries because of her domineering father. She has a home that ruins as does she, meets and entangles herself with a Northern man, Homer Barron, who disappears. She manages her life relying on Southern ideas about how to treat a lady, and uses them to keep the world at a comfortable distance. That world changes around her, but not so much as one might imagine. It is only when she dies that the town discovers she has kept her disappeared lover’s corpse in the bed with her, all these years, his body decaying as she did herself, in her own fashion. It is telling, for fans of “S-Town,” that the last recorded dialogue of Miss Emily comes when she attempts to buy poison.

I thought about “A Rose for Emily,” listening to “S-Town” – the story, not the song. The podcast mirrors the story’s fractured time signature. Faulkner does not tell the story sequentially, but lets it unfold like what you might hear out front of the general store around the cuspidor as the oldtimers in Liberty overalls answer a question on local lore. It begins with her death but does not disclose the “guts” at first – absurdly, like “Star Wars,” it begins with a dispute over taxes. But money and property and paperwork are the stuff of life, as anyone listening to “S-Town” knows. We are then told about the horrible smell of the Grierson property, but this might be chalked up to an aging woman, thoughtless of public opinion. The story recounts the death of her father, and then her purchase of rat poison. It is believed she would commit suicide after the aborted romance with Barron, before his disappearance. Then comes her death and the discovery. Faulkner’s fractured time is necessary – he wants to save the truth about Miss Emily until the very last page. To do that, he has to tell the story out of order, has to unveil parts of the body before drawing the sheet back in full. He gives us the poison before the victim, so that we are suitably shocked, if we haven’t already figured it out.

In telling “S-Town,” Brian Reed introduces us to John B. McLemore in much the same way he encountered him. But apart from our own children, we encounter everyone we meet in their own stories as they are happening. We are rarely conscious witnesses to origins. So it is only after McLemore’s death that Brian begins to tell us, at the same time, what happened to John B.’s place, his papers, his maze, his land, and his mother, and what brought him to the moment where he swallowed cyanide. This allows us to, in some ways, sidestep obvious questions about why he would kill himself while at the same time considering the harder, more philosophical questions.  It is only after we are away that we wonder why a man, obviously thoughtful and introspective and careful, would spend time writing a suicide manifesto but not a will; would talk about economic collapse and debanking but not pass on where his assets were, if they existed; would tell others he couldn’t leave the town he loathed because he needed to care for his mother, but kill himself with her sleeping in the house and her disposition unresolved. Rarely has the distance between knowledge and wisdom been so easily illustrated. Wisdom is proven right by her children.

One also has to wonder what McLemore thought he was doing when he suggested Reed look over those stories. I've met a lot of interesting strangers in my life, but I've never given any of them a reading list.  Was McLemore communicating a deep appreciation for these works, or did he groom Reed, almost from the beginning, to tell his story, even subconsciously? There's no way he could have known, on his front porch in the last, desperate moments of his life, that his story might survive him in such a farflung way. Or was it, like so many of his other encounters, the sort of gesture which our heavily ironic, snarky age minimizes under the phrase "desperate cry for help?"

Perhaps the best similarity between “A Rose for Emily” and “S-Town” is the voice. Faulkner does not put his tale in the mouth of a single narrator, but in the collective voice of the town of Jefferson, a “we” that is cutting and exacting and calm and menacing, appalled and appalling, comfortable and comforting, and very human. Brian Reed is very much the narrator of “S-Town,” but he throws open his story to a listening world, letting it find whatever meaning it may discover, trusting that the unsettling, turbulent and foreshortened career of an irascible clockmaker in a forgotten part of the world could tell us a little of who we are, what the nature of time is, and how the enduring “we” can find meaning in the present and eternity.

We live in times when people cling to their own ideas of righteousness, or self-righteousness. They look for a life’s justification in their motives, and decry the failure of ideals to the treachery of the other. We stew in private passions and heap scorn on the reflections we encounter online and in the street. But everyone, everyone, longs for the imperishable and the true, the consoling and the inspiring, however they may recognize them.

The formerly self-satisfied Mrs. Turpin in O’Connor’s “Revelation,” still encased in the prejudices of her time, catches a glimpse at sunset, in her mind’s eye, of something savoring of the Apocalpyse:

“She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black n*****s in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and capping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away...”

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.



Saturday, May 12, 2018

‘The Hellfire Club’ and the sinister consolations of secret societies


There is a scene in Jake Tapper’s new novel of Washington intrigue, “The Hellfire Club,” which seems tailor-made for our time of Twitter mobs and pearl-clutching, intentional outrage.

The novel follows a conversation in Statuary Hall on the second floor of the U.S. Capitol between newly-installed Representative Charlie Marder and his colleague, Congressman Isaiah Street. It is early 1954, and both men are surrounded by statues of great Americans of the past. Marder is white. Street is black. “Folks at home…voters would be amazed if they ever found out how many decisions are actually made by these secret societies and clubs,” Street says.

He doesn’t mean Skull & Bones – but the Ku Klux Klan. He voices the arguments of this century, wondering why there are monuments to great figures of the Confederacy here in the capital city of the nation they betrayed.

Both men are veterans of World War II, both serving their nation at a moment of great power. But both are men, in a nation at that moment largely led by men. And for one of these men, there are large portions of the nation where he couldn’t get a seat at a table in a restaurant, or even hold elected office, because of his race.

When Marder argues that the legacy of these men is complicated, Street replies that “right is right.” It is not enough to say that the people of the past, like us, contain multitudes. But then again, we are reading a novel about people of the past, in what we think of as an uncomplicated part of it, aren’t we?

This novel, the first by the CNN anchor, is fun. Tapper has constructed an entertaining, teeming, tense and charming thriller with bits of humor and even grandeur. It is obvious that Tapper cares about, and relishes, American history, particularly its more forgotten aspects. He shows the kind of devotion for old Washington haunts that you might want in your favorite tour guide, but he doesn’t let the minutiae overpower the narrative. More importantly, he expertly lifts the veil to show how similar the arguments of the recent past are to our own age. At the same time he's comfortable not answering the questions raised in the process. When a senator claims that 100 communists are crossing into the U.S. through the Mexican border every day, he doesn’t employ a flashing sign for the reader to draw any conclusions.

Like the Statuary Hall scene above, Tapper reminds us that the people of the past have the same complications we do. They sometimes know the right way but can easily lose sight of it in the press of the daily concern. And there is, in any situation, the exertion of the moment to conform to whatever masquerades as wisdom. Charlie’s wife Margaret at one point muses, “The human soul isn’t sold once but rather slowly and methodically and piece by piece.”

Among the sources for “The Hellfire Club,” Tapper acknowledges a debt to David Halberstam’s “The Fifties,” a fantastic account of the times written more than twenty years ago. Halberstam begins with the idea that the Fifties appear to us to be an orderly era, but that image masks vast contradictions. We see these years of American omnipotence in the same shade as the photographs that depict the time - black and white. There was a seeming order to everything, and Americans were grateful for order.

“In that era of general good will and expanding affluence, few Americans doubted the essential goodness of their society,” Halberstam wrote. “After all, it was reflected back at them...they were optimistic about the future…Americans trusted their leaders to tell them the truth, to makes sound decisions, and to keep them out of war.” At the same time, vast cultural, political, social and intellectual forces were moving beneath the surface that would eventually burst forth in the chaos of the Sixties.

Some of those forces are evident in the pages of “The Hellfire Club.” Charlie Marder comes from privilege. It was on his 21st birthday, Dec. 7, 1941, that America was rudely ushered onto the stage of world conflict, and ultimately, power. And it is through his father’s influence that he is appointed to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. House of Representatives during the endgame of the career of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Charlie comes from academia and has faith in the essential goodness of people.

Through the novel’s intrigues, we are introduced to the idea of a secret society that operates at the highest levels of government, as old as America itself, keeping a lid on the tectonic forces driving the nation. But McCarthy’s advent – alleging a shadowy Communist conspiracy at the highest levels – threatens to upset the delicate concentrations of power within the Hellfire Club. Charlie Marder blunders into the middle of this upon taking his seat in Congress, requiring the action of the club’s old hands to escort him out of peril.

Through his odyssey, we meet familiar and forgotten figures of the era – the Kennedy brothers, Estes Kefauver, Lyndon Johnson, Ike – and we are treated again to the pageant of deep Cold War politics. As I read the novel, I kept wondering what the Russians would have thought of the idea of cabals within cabals. It probably would have looked familiar to them, as anyone who has seen “The Death of Stalin” would understand.

But I was also reminded of the lure of secret societies, an idea probably as old as government itself. The concept of a group of highly placed individuals who secretly pull the strings has an almost equal share of mystique and menace. If you are someone who prizes order, there is consolation in knowing that things may spin out of balance, but never quite out of control. There will always be someone to step in and preserve the institutions that help us sleep at night.

But if you feel yourself outside the order of society, then you are constantly wondering at what point that secret power will collapse, and what it will take to finally bring it down. Even so, there are consolations here.

Generations of anti-Semites have stoked themselves into a frenzy at the idea of an international Jewish conspiracy to control the world through politics, finance and culture. That idea has laid waste to millions. Those believing the lie even today have also taken cheer from it, because its believers see themselves as liberators, and their lives have an awful meaning and purpose. The political assassinations of the Sixties have led to spiderwebs of conspiracy among amateur detectives, with each new blurry photograph promising the long-wished-for solution. Those same people take pride in the fact that they know, better than anyone.

And there is sometimes truth to the ideas behind our fears. Hillary Clinton supporters speak of a "vast right wing conspiracy." Followers of Donald Trump talk about a "deep state" that frustrates his plans and sews suspicion through leaks. Read Abraham Lincoln's "House Divided" speech, and it too posits a conspiracy among America's institutions to preserve slavery. Judge for yourself whether he was right.

 When people on the left or right hear the other side’s conspiracy theories, they probably think, “If only we were as powerful and united as they suppose…” But both sides draw strength from the idea that, beneath the surface, are nameless vindictive zealots who may frustrate them today, but not tomorrow.

Somehow, Tapper makes all of this entertaining against a tapestry of time that we’ve mostly managed to forget. I was thrilled to see his story shoehorn in episodes like Congress’ hearings on the comic book industry. That too was a conspiracy theory – that lurid tales of murder and horror were responsible for rising juvenile delinquency. The way he works this into the conclusion was particularly sweet.

There is, of course, at this moment in American politics, the idea that we lost something when we lost the order of the Fifties. We lost surety, peace, optimism and benevolence. A movement to “make America great again” necessarily taps into that nostalgia. It was obvious who our enemy was then, we think. “The Hellfire Club,” within the mechanism of a suspense novel, pokes needed holes in that belief by reminding us of how complicated the uncomplicated past was. 

Novels like this – LeCarre comes to mind –usually cement in the reader’s mind the idea of a moral universe where everything is contested and there are no reliable levers to pull in order to bring everything into balance. Governments and movements are peopled by morally corrupted and endlessly compromised people. But Tapper leaves the reader of “The Hellfire Club” with a hopeful optimism, putting these words into the mouth of the era’s most recognizable, and sadly, overshadowed figure, President Eisenhower:

“I am confident in the idea of the United States of America…I believe that the combination of checks and balances and a free press and our democratically elected representatives ultimately expose charlatans. I believe in the good sense of the American people, and I know in my soul that truth will win out.”

There is a tendency in every era of American history to think that the stakes have never been higher, that the threat to the Republic has never been greater, that sinister forces were never closer to an ultimate victory. That may be true of any era, but as the years pass we quickly move past those conflicts to find others, consoling ourselves with darker, more mendacious conspiracies, casting ourselves in greater clothing to be quickly discarded. As Marilynne Robinson wrote in “Gilead,” “…how the times change, and the same words that carry a good many people into the howling wilderness in one generation are irksome and meaningless in the next.”

I find myself wanting to revisit the history of “The Hellfire Club” (which I suppose is Tapper’s intention), seeing how it might have handled the Civil Rights struggle, Vietnam, or Watergate. Or perhaps a look back at the toll of the Civil War. We can hopefully wait to see about our own age, after our outrage cools. 


Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with AL.com on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.