I grew up in a very rural area. (Population of my township—not quite town—was 450.) White collar jobs essentially limited to doctors in the regional hospital, bank execs, and the occasional, lucky entrepreneur (all in the next town over), the majority of people are salt of the earth: laborers, teachers, mechanics, clerks, farmers, housewives, shop owners, the elderly, etc. And, like so many other small towns (and townships) in the latter part of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, my area is affected by poverty and higher usage of illegal drugs. A close relative of mine, in fact, died of an overdose recently. Believing I had an understanding of why, I nevertheless jumped at the chance to read Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town (2009) to find out just how country music, big truck tires, and a low-key sense of howdy could be so affected.
A mix of case study and research journalism, Methland grounds itself in the empiricism of small town of Oelwein, Iowa, all the while connecting the dots of the town’s meth problem to the larger sectors of pharmaceuticals, criminal law, sociology, and politics. From the town’s mayor to one of its biggest addicts, the police chief to one of the region’s major dealers, Mexican drug cartels to government legislation, FBI officials to the owner of Oelwein’s most popular watering hole, the key players locally are given space to present their view, even as research into the breadth and history of meth legislation, distribution, manufacture, logistics, drug labs, and other vectors are presented at the local, national and international levels. In short, Reding cannot be accused of leaving a stone in the arena of methamphetamine abuse, unturned.
And comprehensiveness is what makes Methland not only informative, but satisfying. Rather than limiting himself to any preconceived notions, or simplifying blame to one viewpoint, Reding attempts to paint the wider scene based on his interviews with people and time spent in statistics and newspaper articles. The result feels like a realistic look at the issue, made all the more tangible by the people living the problem. Thus, for those concerned Methland is a bleeding heart liberal account attempting to present meth heads as victims of the system, fear not: the addicts and dealers of Oelwein are portrayed with the same sense of quotidian realism as the police chief and district attorney. Certainly there are criticisms, poverty, human vice, and lack of corporate social responsibility chief among them, but the meth heads are not generally portrayed as helpless in the face of big business. The understanding and sub-text go deeper.
I wanted a relatively comprehensive, palatable perspective on the drug problem in rural America, and in the end, I got it with Methland. Enlightening in numerous ways, not to mention relatable in a human-to-human fashion a lot of faceless journalism does not deliver (save sappy human interest stories), Methland seems an honest attempt to quantify the meth problem and its effect on society from someone who grew up in a small town and is sad to see it impacted to the extent it is. And, if for nothing else, documents the increasing gap between America’s golden years and the present tense, and the people and sectors of society and government involved in the decline.