If you’ve been on the Internet at all since the last week of March, it’s likely you’ve already heard about and listened to the new podcast everyone is talking about: S-Town. From the creators of Serial and This American Life, S-Town is the story of a small, stunted town in Alabama. A “shit town,” as the unforgettable voice of the series, John B. McLemore says time and time again.
Brian Reed narrates, and as he explores John’s town and ultimately, his life, you can’t help but feel like you’re immersed in a really amazing audio book. S-Town is not “the next Serial,” because it’s not a murder mystery so much as it’s the exploration of life and small southern towns and family and a million other things told in an unforgettable format. I loved everything about it, from the narration to John B, the clocks, the dogs, and the GORGEOUS website.
If you’re feeling lost and looking to fill the S-Town void in your life, so am I. Luckily, books! Here are five that will fit the southern grit vibe you might be looking for.
Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich
Crime, unlikely alliances, and the long power of family and friendship dominate this unputdownable book about a crime family living in the mountains. If it’s a gritty atmosphere and flawed characters you can’t get enough of, you’ll love Bull Mountain just as much as you enjoyed learning about the people in good old Bib County.
Snippet: “They shared a moment of crushing sadness that tightened her chest and suddenly made it hard to breathe. It was the kind of sadness brought on by turning corners that led you to places there was no finding your way home from. They had both looked deep within themselves and found an ugliness that couldn’t be stuffed back inside.”
The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
A list of things I loved about S-Town: the southern setting, the incredibly small, judgmental town, secrets on secrets, and beautiful writing on the power of life and death. Things I love about The Serpent King — the list is about the same. You’ll find everything you love about S-Town in The Serpent King. While S-Town is a real place with real people and these are “just” characters, they feel every bit as real.
Also, yes, I am still recommending this one. If I can find a way to rec this book, you know I will.
Snippet: “That wouldn’t be a bad way to die…giving off light for millions of years after you’re gone.”
The Nix by Nathan Hill
One of the funniest and darkest elements of S-Town was John’s biting commentary on the state of the world, the climate, and the government. It felt timely and scary, the things he had to say, many of them prior to the election.
The Nix has a similar candor. It moves around in time, also like S-Town, mainly between the late ’80s, 2011, and 1968, using the lives of one family to tell many stories. I might be biased because I read this the same week I listed to the podcast, but this is a great (albeit long) companion to S-Town in so many ways. This will make you laugh as often as it makes you think, which was one of my favorite things about S-Town, too.
Snippet: “He longs for someone in the crowd to see the haunted expression he’s sure is playing all over his face right now and come up to him and say, You seem to be experiencing overwhelming pain, how can I help you?”
The Dry by Jane Harper
An important piece of S-Town is learning more about people after their death than you knew about them in life, and the same can be said about Jane Harper’s debut thriller, The Dry. This will definitely keep you on your toes, and though it’s set I believe in Australia rather than the south, the same oppressive heat and atmosphere pervades every page.
Snippet: “Death rarely changes how we feel about someone. Heightens it, more often than not.”
All the Rage by Courtney Summers
This one is a book I never reviewed after reading, but deserves so much more attention. The original premise of S-Town, and the reason Brian Reed ends up in Alabama to begin with, is alleged police corruption and cover ups. In All the Rage, the police reign supreme in Romy’s small town. The sheriff looks out for his family, mainly his sons, and when it’s Romy’s word against their for some pretty serious accusations, she knows she doesn’t stand a chance.
Powerful and hard hitting and definitely an over-looked piece of YA literature, All the Rage is another perfect companion read to S-Town.
Snippet: “Cell phones don’t run as fast as the mouths in this town.”
Have you listened to S-Town? What did you think?