July 2009

Craig Fehrman

nonfiction

Methland by Nick Reding

Every Midwesterner has a meth story, even if most of them are second-hand. When I was a college junior in Evansville, Indiana, finishing up the last of three weeks of R.A. training, two cops came to give a presentation about campus drug use. These were Evansville's only narcotics officers, both of whom worked undercover, the one behind a greasy ponytail, the other an unfortunate goatee. They started with a story about meth.

Apparently, after a few complaints about the odd smells emanating from a nearby house, the cops had checked it out. A man answered the door completely naked. Searching the house, they found the normal markings of a meth lab -- cold medicine, lantern fluid, soda bottles, batteries. But they also found something else: a Sawzall (pronounced "saw-zaw," it's basically a hand-held jackhammer that powers a blade forcefully enough to shake your entire frame), to which he'd attached, not a blade, but a dildo. The man had been using it on himself for the twelve straight days he'd been awake.

If there's a gruesome humor to this story -- Indiana narcos? Self-sodomy by power tool? Three weeks of R.A. training? -- it melts away in the face of a serious issue: meth addiction. And, to Nick Reding's credit, he's written a serious book. Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town gracefully moves from drug addiction to globalization, from Big Agriculture to Big Pharmaceutical, always with the goal of better understanding "the twenty-eight landlocked states of the American flyover zone." In these states, Reding argues, "meth has always been less an agent of change and more a symptom of it."

The book's titular town is Oelwein, Iowa (pop. 6,772). Perfectly proportioned at 11 bars and 13 churches, Oelwein supplies the surrounding farms and puts on the state's best Christmas pageant. Reding ends up spending parts of four years there; instead of tape recorders or scripted interviews, he goes hunting and eats pseudo-Mexican food with the locals. The whole thing seems as American as an individually-wrapped Dolly Madison Apple Pie.

Yet corporate forces, from Dolly to Archer Daniels, have changed Oelwein. If, by 2003, Oelwein's police were busting one meth lab every four days (with each one costing $6,000 to clean up), Reding starts his story earlier, in the 1980s, when Oelwein and the many towns like it began losing their farming and manufacturing jobs. Oelwein's median income now stands at half the state average, and Reding stresses the importance of this small-town context -- not only because its economics inflect the making, selling, and even prosecuting of meth, but also because our Midwestern diaspora maintain an image of their hometown and their childhood, even as today's reality is much different, which is to say much worse.

Through Methland's many fascinating characters, Reding sketches this reality. We get Nathan Lein, the foul-mouthed, Kant-quoting, six-foot-nine assistant county prosecutor who still helps on his elderly parents' farm three nights a week. We get Clay Hallberg, the country doctor, garage rocker, and burgeoning alcoholic. We get Larry Murphy, the archetypal small-town politico trying to reinvent Oelwein's dying downtown. In each case, Reding's portrait of the good guys and their fight against meth represents one of his book's most important aspects.

I say most important because, in most accounts of meth, the bad guys get all the press. To be fair, they provide better material: "Jarvis looked down and saw what he thought was egg white on his bare arms. It was not egg white; it was the viscous state of his skin now that the water had boiled out of it." Everest high, impervious to pain, Jarvis -- that would be Roland Jarvis, the divorced father of four who's spent seven of the last ten years in jail -- has just blown up his mother's basement, where he normally cooks his meth. His story becomes only more disgusting, but, in Reding's deft telling, it conveys both meth's physical destruction and its crazily detached mindset. Other noteworthy members of the opposition include Lori Arnold, the Iowa woman (and sister of Tom) who built the Midwest's first meth empire; and Major, a tenuously rehabilitated dealer struggling with the guilt of raising Buck, his infant son, who might at any moment manifest symptoms from the fact that Major cooked his meth and Buck's cereal in the same microwave.

Stories like Jarvis's began receiving widespread attention in 2005, six years after Reding first proposed a book on meth's rising profile. (Before the drug became a media darling, Reding's editors and agents dismissed it "as prevalent as corn, as inscrutable as the farm bill, and as tacky as evangelical theology.") But if the media loved meth on the way up, they also loved it on the way down. And this leaves Reding in a fascinating position -- someone who latched on to the story before anyone else cared and who now has finished an exhaustive book on it, well after the hype has been flamed, critiqued, and forgotten.

On the plus side, Reding uses this position to place meth in a broader context. He shows how it became a cheaper and purer product "at exactly the moment that rural economies collapsed and people left" --and how laid-off workers at home and abroad created the perfect network for dealers like Arnold. But Reding seems weaker on the future of meth. If towns like Oelwein are seeing fewer lab busts, they still struggle with addicts. (At the end of the book, Lein admits that 95 percent of his cases remain drug-related.) Today, in fact, most meth comes from Mexican drug cartels, who recreate homestyle distribution networks with illegal immigrants and raise the specter of drug-related violence. But while Reding explains these various parts, he never really forges them into a convincing picture or prescription -- even if only to say "This is where we are, and this is where we're headed." (His last visit to Oelwein seems more about tying up the characters' loose ends than meth's.)

But if Methland is unsatisfying in parts, it remains ambitious and important. I could continue to nitpick -- there's too much backstory on Hallford and not enough on Lein; too much on the town's mob past and not enough on its meatpacking industry -- but I ultimately came to trust Reding's choices. He's written and reported an excellent book (and one that, in all its complexity, just had to be a book, not an overstuffed magazine article). The end result completely justifies Reding's time and effort, and it will justify yours as well.

 

Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding
Bloomsbury USA
ISBN: 1596916508
272 Pages

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