Nick Reding, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town
Magazine writer Nick Reding discovered crystal methamphetamine’s pervasive effects in 1999 while pursuing another story. A powerful drug that city-dwellers never saw was busily transforming rural America’s cultural landscape, almost completely unseen by city dwellers. But Reding’s Manhattan-based editors disdained this story. The mostly white, overwhelmingly poor meth problem was largely invisible to America’s urban journalism community. Then, in 2005, a country doctor attracted media attention. Suddenly, editors acknowledged the story Reding needed to tell.
Oelwein, Iowa, is a deeply divided community. The bucolic, but tragically underpopulated, Main Street evokes Norman Rockwell comparisons and pastoral nostalgia. A significant cadre of attorneys, doctors, law enforcement officers, and other skilled professionals attempt to maintain that culture. But behind curtained windows in Oelwein’s Third Ward, a silent population of tweakers, cookers, and their families maintains a shadow economy. Where work has abandoned the white rural working class, meth provides alternate but bleak, meaning.
Meth, Reding discovers (as rural dwellers have known), doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Though the Reagan-era Farm Crisis has receded from national attention, attracting desultory attention whenever FarmAid concerts circulate, the consequences still linger. Old MacDonald Sold His Farm, manufacturing in America scarcely exists anymore, and money stopped rolling into rural regions. Those who lacked money when catastrophe struck, remained trapped in America’s new rural poverty. For more on the topic, also see George Pyle.
But meth’s uniquely white, working-class differs from other drugs. Where heroin or cocaine encourage slovenly behavior and mushy thinking, meth users feel energized, work hard, and think lucidly… temporarily. Under the trade name Benzedrine, doctors once prescribed meth to cure insomnia, depression, and schizophrenia. It still treats these conditions, until toxic levels accumulate, when it causes them. Poor rural workers embrace meth because its effects bolster their Protestant work ethic. It’s a virtual miracle drug.
That’s meth’s magic appeal. Reding writes: “It was as though… a sense of nihilism had become endemic to Oelwein.” Invisible to national media, maltreated by out-of-town corporations, and unable to even work meaningfully, rural poor turned to meth because it returned what they believed life had stolen. Meth, Reding discovers, isn’t the story. Though I’m oversimplifying for concision, the story is the conspiracy of incomprehensible forces that trivialized white rural people and demeaned their work.
Reding traces meth’s history, from its advent as patent medication and cure-all, through developing black markets and ignorant vilification, into America’s most profitable illegal narcotic. Without ever mentioning Breaking Bad, Reding debunks sweeping generalizations and War On Drugs mythology, preferring real users and their unique experiences. His incisive views and telling details make discussions with everyone, from Oelwein’s mayor to a meth cook whose business literally melted his skin off, both cringe-inducing and remarkably humane.
Ultimately, this isn’t a book about meth. It’s about the pressures that impact rural America, and human reactions to it. It’s about corporate rapacity, country perseverance, and changing culture. It’s about city-dwellers’, including the media’s, pervasive neglect of rural issues. It’s about what lets some people surrender to despair and addiction, and what makes others stand fast. Like other insightful nonfiction, from In Cold Blood to Silent Spring, it matters because it’s finally about us.
In his afterword to the paperback edition, Reding laments that many reviewers focus on this book’s bleak, negative implications. This ignores the book’s entire final third, where Mayor Larry Murphy, joined by a passionately engaged citizenry and welcoming business community, managed to revitalize Oelwein’s downtown, attract work, and give an old town new purpose. Oelwein’s miracle isn’t portable; certainly. This isn’t a blueprint for small-town renaissance. However, Reding reminds audiences that no malaise is terminal.
We rural dwellers often feel invisible, not only to city-based national media, but to our employers, our community organizations, even ourselves. It’s tempting to believe we suffer alone, because outsiders cannot see our problems. But Reding calls this “The Death and Life of an American Small Town,” because it demonstrates the forces that conspire against us, and our capacity to resist those forces. Reding tells some painful truths, but this is a defiantly optimistic book.