Vintage Saints and Sinners by Karen Wright Marsh, Free for CAPC Members
In Vintage Saints and Sinners, Karen Wright Marsh manages to emphasize the vast goodness of spiritual giants while also humanizing them.
When John B. McLemore emailed Brian Reed, a radio producer, the subject line read: “John B McLemore lives in SH*T TOWN Alabama.” McLemore wanted Reed to investigate rumors of a murder and a police cover-up in Woodstock, his “pathetic little Baptist town” in rural Alabama. That investigation—or more accurately, the life and sudden death of John B. McLemore—became the subject of the hit new podcast, S-Town, produced by Serial and This American Life and downloaded more than 10 million times in 4 days.
As the story begins, McLemore lives with his ailing mother in Bibb County, the fifth-poorest in the state, on the 128 acres his grandfather had owned. “I love my home,” he tells Reed, puffing with pride to describe the view of his 300-foot-long rose garden from his kitchen window. “But this area hasn’t advanced.” Contemptuously, McLemore—self-taught in chemistry, projective geometry, and horology—talks about the impossibility of discussing climate change with Woodstock residents who still hold to theories of a young earth. “I should have got out of this sh*t town in my twenties,” McLemore laments. “I should have done something useful with my life.” As a (last) gesture of protest, he has hailed Reed’s help to expose the god-forsakenness of this place.
For all his complaints about Woodstock, however, McLemore doesn’t leave—even if, in the end, it might have cost him his life.
“So why don’t I move?” McLemore asks in an early episode, voicing the question Reed wants to ask. If Woodstock is backward as he says, why not leave it behind? “There’s got to be people in Falluja or Beirut who have asked themselves this same question,” McLemore begins. He imagines his Arab counterpart by the name of Hassan. Like him, Hassan probably has ties to the land— “a sand maze” not unlike the concentric circles of hedges McLemore has spent years building on his own property. Or maybe Hassan has never left his war-torn country because like McLemore, he’s preoccupied with the daily care of his own ailing mother. “He keeps thinking, ‘Maybe someday it will get better,’ although he knows it never will.” In other words, sh*t town will always be sh*t town—and while that might be cause for despair, it’s not always cause to move.
It’s easy to think that McLemore’s life might have ended differently (or not yet been ended) had he packed everything into his Ford F-150 and begun somewhere new, just as Michael Fuller, one of McLemore’s early charity cases, had done. (After multiple run-ins with the law and rehab, Fuller had moved away from Alabama and respectably settled in Upper Manhattan.) One of the most obvious and culturally familiar explanations for McLemore’s demise is his redneck pedigree. He was fated to inhabit a place unusually given to “proleptic decay and decreptitude” (as McLemore himself describes it). Poverty, unemployment, substance abuse, domestic abuse, crime, child molestation: we are meant to read these as the telltale signs that God has indeed forsaken rural America.
Under the bloodthirsty reign of Herod the Great, Jesus entered Sh*t Town.No doubt there’s something legitimate to this version of McLemore’s story. We are all tied to the fates of our places. As another example, we might examine a sh*t town like Chicago, where racially motivated real estate practices in the early- and mid- twentieth century segregated the city, creating neighborhoods like Lawndale on Chicago’s West Side. Billy Brooks, a native of Lawndale and resident activist, explains in Ta-Nehesi Coates’s Atlantic cover article “The Case for Reparations” that kids growing up in Lawndale understand this: “You ain’t sh*t. You no good. The only thing you are worth is working for us. You will never own anything. You are not going to get an education. We are sending your a— to the penitentiary.” My brother-in-law and sister-in-law moved to Lawndale more than 10 years ago, and they have grown to admire and love its people deeply. It’s home. It’s also true that when I asked my sister-in-law to tell me how many people had been killed on their short block last year, she started counting on her fingers—and got well past the thumb of her second hand.
In his book Where Mortals Dwell, Craig Bartholomew talks about the inevitable connection between body and landscape, between embodiment and emplacement. “Place,” he writes, “is what takes place between body and landscape.” In other words, there is no way to talk about ourselves as embodied human beings without also talking about our places—this very real ground beneath our very real feet. We are fools to think that our lives aren’t shaped by geography and landscape, neighborhood and neck-of-the-woods.
S-Town bears out the shared fate of body and place, especially as we learn, in the final episode, about the elaborate tattooing and piercing rituals McLemore undergoes in the final months before his suicide. These are rituals that McLemore and his friend, Tyler, call “church.” As Reed notes, “church” is like an elaborate form of cutting. Tyler pierces and re-pierces McLemore’s nipples; he tattoos and retattoos the same square footage of McLemore’s chest and back. It’s this physical pain, which proves to be the only relief from the growing despair McLemore feels, living in Sh*t Town.
It’s not relief enough.
I suppose my parents thought they were leaving Sh*t Town when we finally left rural Tennessee on the eve of my brother entering high school. Though my parents were born and raised in the Midwest, my father had gotten his first teaching job at a small liberal arts college in a coal-mining town with rundown schools and racist ideology. We weren’t rich, but we were richer than many of my classmates, who got reduced lunch in the school cafeteria. In East Tennessee, I didn’t learn my states and capitals, but I did learn epithets for African Americans. When my dad announced that we were moving to Worthington, Ohio, a town with the “best schools in the state,” it was clear he was proud to be leading his family out of Sh*t Town.
But it was in Worthington that my older brother fell in with the wrong crowd. In Worthington that he learned to smoke pot. In Worthington that he learned to drive drunk. In this decent suburb of Columbus, Ohio, my brother’s life came apart over the years like a disassembled antique clock, not unlike the ones that John B. McLemore used to repair. Except that there was no fixing it, especially not after he had ended it behind the wheel of my mother’s Camry and she’d found him two days later, his body cold to the touch.
I suppose this is what I find deeply wanting about the theory that some places in the world escape being Sh*t Town. Is it only places like Woodstock, Alabama, and Chicago, Illinois, that betray the deep woundedness of the world? If we leave those places, are we kept safe?
Or maybe Worthington, for less obvious and visible reasons, is Sh*t Town, too.
I haven’t stayed put like John B. McLemore. I’ve left places behind, often with a sense of smug superiority. From rural Tennessee to Worthington, from Worthington to the suburbs of Chicago, most recently from the suburbs of Chicago to the city of Toronto, I have traded in a smaller life for a bigger one, exchanged provincialism for urbanity. I have imagined myself better for the better places I moved.
But the violent murder of the mother of one of my children’s classmates, weeks before this past Christmas, reminded me that even “Toronto the Good”—and its private school enclaves—is Sh*t Town, too.
As the charges detail, this family practice doctor allegedly died at the hands of her own husband. He is accused of having stuffed her body into a suitcase before dropping the kids off at school. Days after the discovery of his wife’s body, the illustrious neurosurgeon with impressive degrees was arrested and now sits awaiting trial. Meanwhile, the maternal grandparents try picking up the pieces of the life he shattered when he took his wife by the throat.
They don’t find the one with their daughter’s face.
It is a horrible story to tell, much less live, but its gruesomeness pokes irreparable holes in the theory that there will ever be enough education or success or money to deliver us from Sh*t Town. Whether we live in Woodstock or Worthington, we all experience the everyday fracturing of this world, which can’t bear the weight of our hopes and expectations.
In his book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis insists we examine our instinctive sense that the universe owes us something. Why should we ever feel entitled to a life better than this one? Why should every suicide, every act of domestic violence, feel like a cosmic disruption? In other words, to what do we owe our great surprise that this world should be anything other than Sh*t Town?
The Christian story, of course, tells us why, because it begins with a very good world and a very good God, whose impulse was hospitality. In the beginning, we had the home we’re all searching for now. There was once a place for everything, and everything in its place. Nevertheless, that bucolic beginning ended abruptly when God’s first guests broke the one house rule, eating from the one tree God had forbidden. They were turned out and set to wandering.
As the Christian story tells it, Adam and Eve lost the garden, and we inherited Sh*t Town.
This might have been the end of it, God scornfully telling the kind of parable that John B. McLemore liked to tell about the time he’d eaten dinner with a friend at the local truck stop. On their way home, they passed by the South 40 Trailer Park where a woman stood in front of the sign, dressed in nothing but a pink top. “My God, look at her,” McLemore had said to his friend who had sagely replied, “Usually when you see jokers that look like that, they done something to get like that.”
But God did not turn from the sight of us, did not wag his finger at the better choices we should have made. He laid aside the privilege of invulnerability and took on a body. Under the bloodthirsty reign of Herod the Great, Jesus entered Sh*t Town. And though he was spared the fate of the other Bethlehemite boys who were ruthlessly slaughtered by Herod, he was eventually hung from a god-forsaken Roman cross. How easily he might have come down. How many myriads of angels he could have called to his side.
But he stayed put, not unlike John B. McLemore. A broken body bleeding for Sh*t Town.
In the wake of the terrorist shootings on December 4, 2015, in San Bernardino, California, the New York Times ran its first front-page editorial since 1920. “All people feel sorrow and righteous fury about the latest slaughter of innocents in California,” the lament begins. Whatever their religious persuasion, these writers know the un-rightness of things. It’s Sh*t Town, alright.
“Sorrow” and “righteous fury” are important parts of Christian witness, and lament is critical to hope. How do we long for a better world until we grapple with the brokenness of this one? But “proleptic decay and decreptitude” isn’t the end of the story as Easter tells it. On Good Friday, a body is buried. Three days later, it is raised.
Hope is pinned on an empty tomb.
As Lewis elsewhere writes, “[T]he leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that [Woodstock and Worthington, Falluja and Beirut] will not always be so” (44).
For God so loved Sh*t Town.
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