A few years ago, my friend Werner had just finished Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town and told me about it over lunch, urging me to read it as well. I looked at reviews, downloaded the free opening portion to my Kindle, and decided it was too bleak to jump into just yet. It sat on my reading list for a year, then fell off.
The other night, Gail and I had just watched a show on TV via Netflix and I was looking for something else to watch when I stumbled on the suggestion of Breaking Bad, the soon-to-end AMC cable series that began in 2008 but that we had never watched before. It’s about a high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque who becomes a methamphetamine maker. I knew it was well regarded and decided to see what the fuss was about.
As we watched the pilot, the Reding book came to mind, and my curiosity was piqued anew. I downloaded the free opening portion, this time reading it in full, downloading the full book so I could keep reading.*
I’m a little past the halfway point now and the book is indeed bleak. Here is the description at its website:
Methland tells the heroic story of the small town of Oelwein, Iowa–and, through it, the story of drug abuse in Rural America. Once a railroad, meat-packing, and farming hub, Oelwein has been battered by the Farm Crisis and decimated by job losses. More recently, thanks to the lobbying of pharmaceutical companies in Washington, D.C., record amounts of methamphetamine, aka crank or crystal meth, are available on Oelwein’s streets. Like thousands of other small towns across the United States, the drug’s production has become one of Oelwein’s principal business. Now, the town doctor, the mayor, and the prosecutor are fighting back.
Journalist and native Midwesterner Nick Reding spent four years living off and on in Oelwein. Along with the book’s three principal characters, Methland follows the traffickers, addicts, federal agents, and politicians whose lives make up a uniquely contemporary American tragedy, blending sociology, history, and thousands of hours of eyewitness reporting into a real-life account that reads like a novel.
Reding is at his best in recounting the lives of Oelwein’s residents, as well as important characters from outside Oelwein. There’s many a haunting story. I’m less happy about Reding’s tendency to repeat himself when discussing his larger socio-economic themes, with insufficient detail to back up his points. But maybe the detail is still to come.
Then there’s the incredible annoyance—not Reding’s fault—of the poor Kindle rendering. What’s up with these publishers? Is it so darn hard to do this well? Especially frustrating is the recurrence of words with spaces inserted.
Try this sentence out, from the book’s first paragraph, in which the author imagines spotting Oelwein as he looks down from a plane en route from Chicago to San Francisco:
Briefly, you can look at this photographic image of a town, imagining the lives of the people there with voyeuris tic plea sure.
I spent some moments imagining that “plea sure” is some kind of legal jargon.
Or this, in an account of a meth addict living with his parents:
One night Major stole his mother’s pan ties and bras and hocked them at a bar.
I might have unwound the meaning of “pan ties” more quickly if it didn’t happen to come at the end of a line, allowing me a moment to stare at it in puzzlement before taking in the subsequent two words for context. I was going to ask Gail if we had any pan ties in the kitchen and what we used them for.
Major and his parents, by the way, live in In dependence, Iowa. Or so it says about a half dozen times.
As for Reding’s larger theme, here’s one description.
What continued to take shape for me was the portrait of a town that stood as a metaphor for all of rural America and its problems. That’s to say that the evolution of the meth epidemic had occurred in lockstep with the three separate economic trends that had contributed to the dissolution of small-town United States. By looking closely at the events of 2006, one can see the parallel trajectories of meth and small-town economics—the one rising, the other falling … . And the things that spurred this simultaneous rise and fall: the development of Big Pharmaceuticals, Big Agriculture, and the modern Mexican drug-trafficking business.
Again, I look forward to the details.
And here is the opening paragraph of Walter Kirn’s NYT book review four years ago:
Think globally, suffer locally. This could be the moral of “Methland,” Nick Reding’s unnerving investigative account of two gruesome years in the life of Oelwein, Iowa, a railroad and meatpacking town of several thousand whipped by a methamphetamine-laced panic whose origins lie outside the place itself, in forces almost too great to comprehend and too pitiless to bear. The ravages of meth, or “crank,” on Oelwein and countless forsaken locales much like it are shown to be merely superficial symptoms of a vaster social dementia caused by, among other things, the iron dominion of corporate agriculture and the slow melting of villages and families into the worldwide financial stew.
I look forward to learning more.
*Not really the full book. Boy these sorts of things are annoying. The paperback edition, which I suppose came out about a year after the hardcover, has an afterword. I know this because before I downloaded the free Kindle sample, I looked at the Table of Contents that Amazon previews at the print book webpage, in order to see how long the book was, and there was the Afterword. I imagine Reding provided an update, or a look back, before the paperback came out. But three years later, it’s beyond the power of Amazon or the publisher to offer a revised Kindle version.