four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
42-Sept-Oct-2009
By: 
Nick Reding
user_rating: 
0

The Death and Life of an American Small Town

A-MethlandWhen journalist Nick Reding (The Last Cowboys at the End of the World) was investigating a magazine story about ranching in the West in 1999, he encountered crystal methamphetamine for the first time-and it was everywhere.

The Topic: In this investigative account of Oelwein, Iowa, a farm town, Reding sheds light on the methamphetamine epidemic rapidly destroying the region. He argues that rather than a local blight, the spread of meth emerged from larger forces tearing apart the region's social fabric, including the rise of corporate agriculture and undocumented workers and the demise of middle-class wages. Meth-with the opportunity for quick profit and feeling of well-being-took hold. Reding profiles those affected: an alcoholic town doctor; a prosecutor; a female "crank" dealer; and a meth addict who, while cooking up a batch of meth, blew off his face and hands. In this modern-day tragedy, Oelwein represents the many dying towns in the American heartland.
Bloomsbury. 255 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 9781596916500

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"News coverage of meth may have declined, but Reding argues convincingly that the problem has not-and the broader repercussions of the epidemic have yet to play out. ... Reding is most engaging, though, when he dives into the lives of those most affected-the local sellers, the addicts and the hometown medical and legal workers overwhelmed by the scope of the problem." Scott Martelle

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"The book, wrought from old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting of a type that's disappearing faster than nonfranchised lunch counters on Main Street, isn't chiefly a tale of drugs and crime, of dysfunction and despair, but a recession-era tragedy scaled for an Our Town, Thornton Wilder stage and seemingly based on a script by William S. Burroughs. ... In the tradition of James Agee's writings on Depression-era sharecroppers, Reding displays the faces of the damned in broken-capillary close-ups." Walter Kirn

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"Because investigative journalists like Reding yearn to convey the big picture that explains the small-town microcosms, they look for patterns. ... The connections [between the food, pharmaceutical, and illegal narcotics industries] are quite likely to leave his readers both surprised and angry." Steve Weinberg

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Though he avoids making the argument in such stark terms, Reding positions the meth epidemic as the triumph of profits over the safety and prosperity of America's small-town inhabitants. ... Methland makes the case that small-town America is perhaps not the moral and hard-working place of the public imagination, but it also argues that big-city ignorance-fueled by the media-toward small-town decay is both dangerous and appalling." David Liss

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"It is not possible for an outsider to really know a place; he can only describe its visible parts, so the strength of Methland lies not in what I suspect is a lopsided portrait of a town but rather in its character studies. ... Mr. Reding is less compelling when he tries to tell us What it All Means." Bill Kauffman

Critical Summary

For this powerful, terrifying look at the drug epidemic in America's heartland, Reding studied meth production and addiction in Oelwein over four years. The book's strength lies in its character studies and depictions of destroyed families-many not for the squeamish-as well as in its explanation of how meth producers integrate their operations to become major conglomerates. Despite the persuasive narrative, a few reviewers noted a weakness in Reding's attempt to link larger socioeconomic forces (such as the rise of agribusiness) to small towns' meth use and production. But the coupling of classic reporting and a compelling, timely story make Methland a book well worth reading.