Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town

By Nick Reding
Publisher:Bloomsbury USA, (5/25/2010)

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The bestselling book that launched meth back into the nation's consciousness. Based on Reding's four years of reporting in the agricultural town of Oelwein, Iowa, and tracing the connections to the global forces that set the stage for the meth epidemic, Methland offers a vital perspective on a contemporary tragedy. It is a portrait of a community under siege, of the lives that meth has devastated, and of the heroes who continue to fight the war.
Nick Reding is the author of The Last Cowboys at the End of the World, and his writing has appeared in Outside, Food and Wine, and Harper’s. Born in St. Louis, he decided to move back to his hometown in the course of reporting this book.
Crystal methamphetamine is widely considered to be the most dangerous drug in the world, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the small towns of the American heartland. InMethland, journalist Nick Reding tells the story of Oelwein, Iowa (pop. 6,159), which, like thousands of other rural communities across the country, has been left in the dust by the consolidation of the agricultural industry, a depressed local economy, and an out-migration of people. Now an incredibly cheap, long-lasting, and highly addictive drug has rolled into town.

Through four years of reporting, Reding brings us into the heart of rural America through a cast of intimately drawn characters. Trafficker Lori Arnold is the queen of Midwest crank. Roland Jarvis is a former meatpacking worker who blew up his mother's house while cooking meth. Oelwein's doctor, Clay Hallberg, feels his own life falling apart as he attempts to put that of his town back together. Nathan Lein, the son of farmers, is now the county prosecutor, struggling with what Oelwein has become.

Methland is a portrait not just of a town, but of small-town America on the brink. Centered on one community battling for a brighter future, it reveals the connections between the real-life people touched by the drug epidemic and the global forces behind it. Methland provides a vital perspective on a contemporary tragedy, ultimately offering the very thing that meth once took from Oelwein: hope.
“This is a strong book, and it tells a complicated story in comprehensible, human dimensions.  Like all good journalism, it’s the hand holding up the mirror, the friend telling us to take a cold, hard look at ourselves.”—Los Angeles Times
"Think globally, suffer locally. This could be the moral of Methland, Nick Reding’s unnerving investigative account of . . . Oelwein, Iowa, a railroad and meatpacking town of several thousand whipped by a methamphetamine-laced panic whose origins lie outside the place itself . . . [Reding] introduc[es] a cast of local characters whose trust it must have been a feat to gain, so wobbly and troubled are their lives. Nathan Lein, the crusading county prosecutor, is the 28-year-old son of pious farmers who’s come back to Oelwein to help clean up the meth mess after obtaining degrees in philosophy, law and environmental science . . . Manning another fortress against the siege is Dr. Clay Hallberg, Oelwein’s leading physician . . . In the tradition of James Agee’s writings on Depression-era sharecroppers, Reding displays the faces of the damned in broken-capillary close-ups . . . Too many scenes of sulfurous agony might chase away the most calloused, ambitious reader, so Reding recounts these nightmares sparingly, surrounding them with stretches of patient journalism tracing the convergence of social vectors that made the meth plague nearly inevitable and its eradication well-nigh impossible. He details, with blunt statistics and apt anecdotes, the vanishing of educated young males from rural Iowa, as well as the butchering of middle-class jobs at the local packing plant . . . 'Vicious cycle' is not an adequate term. As Reding painstakingly presents it, the production, distribution and consumption of methamphetamine is a self-catalyzing catastrophe of Chernobylish dimensions. The rich, with their far-off, insulated lives, get richer and more detached, while the poor get high and, finally, wasted . . . What’s clear is that the golden rolling heartland that Americans used to think symbolized stability beats fitfully and irregularly still and almost certainly remains inclined to seek out sources of chemical optimism. And no one, least of all Reding, who knows what’s what on an intimate, human level as well as on the astral plane of globalism, can tell us where it will all end."—Walter Kirn, The New York Times Book Review

“This is a strong book, and it tells a complicated story in comprehensible, human dimensions. Like all good journalism, it’s the hand holding up the mirror, the friend telling us to take a cold, hard look at ourselves.”—Los Angeles Times

“The strength of Methland lies in its character studies. As a ‘social problem’ meth is dull and intractable, as are all such problems; reduced, or rather elevated, to the individual level, it is piercing and poignant.”—The Wall Street Journal

"A central myth of our national culture . . . Small-town residents, the story goes, are honest, hard-working, religiously observant and somehow just more American than the rest of America . . . Reding reveals the fallacies of this myth by showing how, over the past three decades, small-town America has been blighted by methamphetamine, which has taken root in—and taken hold of—its soul . . . Oelwein serves as a case study of the problems many small towns face today. Once a vibrant farming community where union work and small businesses were plentiful, Oelwein is now struggling through a transition to agribusiness and low-wage employment or, alternatively, unemployment. These conditions, Reding shows, have made the town susceptible to methamphetamine . . . [He] tracks the decline—and, ultimately, the limited resurgence—of Oelwein, while also examining the larger forces that have contributed to its problems. He links meth to the gathering power of unregulated capitalism beginning in the 1980's. It was then, he argues, that one-time union employees earning good wages and protected by solid benefits . . . began to see their earnings cut and their benefits disappear. Undocumented migrants began taking jobs at extraordinarily low wages, thereby depressing the cost of labor. Meth, with its opportunity for quick profit and its power to make the most abject and despondent person feel suddenly alive and vibrant, found fertile ground. Meanwhile, in Washington, pharmaceutical lobbyists were working hard to keep DEA agents from attempting to limit access to the raw ingredients; ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, meth's core precursors, were simply too vital to the lucrative allergy-remedy market . . . Reding positions the meth epidemic as the triumph of profits over the safety and prosperity of America's small-town inhabitants. But meth hasn't always been seen as a menace. In fact, Reding explains, 'methamphetamine was once heralded as the drug that would end the need for all others.' First developed by a Japanese chemist at the end of the 19th century, meth was, by the middle of the 20th century, embraced by many in government and industry as a wonder drug . . . Among the biggest culprits in the spread of the meth epidemic, Reding argues, are the media, which, he says, have gone from obliviousness to obsession to a premature declaration of the end of the meth problem, and finally the pronouncement that there never was a meth problem in the first place . . . 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."—The Washington Post

“Methland is a stunning look at a problem that has dire consequences for our country.”—New York Post

“A powerful work of reportage . . . a clear-eyed look at a scourge that continues to afflict wide swaths of American society—whether we want to acknowledge it or not.”—Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Through scrupulous reporting and fierce moral engagement, Reding conveys the tragedy of the meth epidemic on both a mirco- and macroscopic level.”—The Village Voice

“Reding’s group portrait of Oelwein’s residents is nuanced and complex in a way that journalists’ depictions of the rural Midwest rarely are; he has a keen eye for details.”—The Washington Monthly

“What’s most impressive about Methland is not only the wealth of information it provides but the depth of Reding’s compassion for the individuals meth has touched: the heroes, the helpless witnesses, the innocent victims—and even the perpetrators—of this American crisis.”—Francine Prose, O, The Oprah Magazine

“Methland tells a story less about crime than about the death of an iconic way of life.”—Details

“Methland is definitely worthwhile reading. In some circles it should be required reading. This isn’t just a small town issue or an Iowa issue. This is an American issue.”—Oelwein Daily Register

"Methland explains so much that it ought to be read by anyone who is at all interested in why this country continues to divide between rich and poor, educated and un-schooled, rural and urban. Most of all, Methland reminds us that people who confront their devils, inside and out, sometimes find a way to beat them."—Bill Bishop, author of
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"Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town"
By Nick Reding

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