Nick Reding went to Oelwein, Iowa, to write a book about meth. What he produced, at its heart, is a story about how a small town can survive the worst.
Nick Reding wrote a book about rural America, but most of the reviews of Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town begin with Roland Jarvis, the drug addict who burned off his face and most of his fingers when his lit cigarette ignited the chemicals he was using to make methamphetamine in his mother’s house.
The attention to Jarvis is understandable — can anyone avoid looking at the wreck on the side of the road? — but it’s driving Nick Reding crazy. “It’s all about freaking Roland Jarvis,” Reding told a reporter for a Minneapolis newspaper about the coverage his book was receiving.
Methland is about much more. Anyone who has lived in a small town will read this book and nod. They’ll recognize how rural places are buffeted by forces beyond their control — and how in most places there are people determined enough to make a new way. I can see why Reding is ticked. Roland Jarvis is a story of self-destruction and loss. Methland is a book about hope.
Reding describes the creation of the methamphetamine industry. He centers his book in Oelwein, a town of about 6,000 in northeast Iowa. Reding’s argument is that meth production and addiction aren’t just a local problem, but a result of national and international economies that have tried to destroy places like Oelwein and the people who live there.
“The rise of the meth epidemic was built largely on economic policies, political decisions, and the recent development of American cultural history,” Reding wrote. “Meth’s basic components lie equally in the action of government lobbyists, long-term trends in the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, and the effects of globalization and free trade. Along the way, meth charts the fears that people have and the vulnerabilities they feel, both as individuals and as communities.”
The town of Oelwein is the book’s main character and, unlike Roland Jarvis, its wounds were not self-inflicted.
Methland traces the drug (used by both Adolph Hitler and Allied W.W. II bombing crews) from California biker gangs to the Midwest in the ‘80s and ‘90s, to towns like Oelwein. Methamphetamine is “the most American” of drugs, Reding writes, because it increases the ability of people to “work hard.” Meth made you feel good, even while you worked the jobs found in the Midwest — the night shift at the meat packing plant or the long hauls driving a truck.
Reding traces a perpetual cycle of decline: As Oelwein’s economy weakened, meth got cheaper and easier to make. Economic collapse made it harder for the town to fight crime and addiction. Multinational companies took over the local meatpacking plants, reducing wages. An increasing percentage of farm profits went to seed companies, and family farms were forced to “grow to an enormous size in order to compete,” Reding writes. “This squeezes out all but the heartiest souls…who care enough about their way of life to essentially take a vow of poverty.”
By the time Reding came to town in the first few years of this decade, Oelwein was a mess. Population was declining and so were wages. Buildings on the main street emptied out. (On the side of a burger joint, EI-EI-O’s, the owner had used red spray paint to scrawl a For Sale sign: “Make Offer — Please!”) The town had run out of gumption. Even the number of teams in the men’s softball league had dwindled from 20 to six.
Teenage girls were hawking drugs on the street, people discovered a market for meth and people began dying. The local doc, Clay Hallberg, described meth as a “socio-cultural cancer.” It didn’t just harm individuals. Meth pulled the whole town down. “The first time we talked,” Reding recalled of his conversations with Hallburg, “he likened each day at work to running into a burning motel and having fifteen minutes to get everyone out. The motel was Oelwein.”
The story Reding wants to tell is this conflict between corporate and federal policies that make life in places in Oelwein untenable and the decision by people like Dr. Hallburg and Mayor Larry Murphy that they have no intention of giving up their town. There’s a long chapter on Murphy’s successful effort to revive Oelwein. And while Reding tells us plenty about the pathetic cases snared in drug making and drug taking, he spends equal time with Larry Murphy as he rebuilds the town’s main street and with Clay Hallberg as he helps to open new addiction treatment centers.
Reding argues that when one part of the country becomes unhinged — when poverty there increases, unemployment soars, education levels drop — the whole country suffers. The drugs manufactured or transported through small towns like Oelwein end up in St. Louis or Portland. Weaknesses in rural towns wind up being problems in cities.
Methland is, in that sense, Redding’s reminder that the country too easily discards its rural places. “In a way, it seems that…the rural United States has been fighting for balance since the early 1980s and for acceptance in a nation intensely divided between the middle and the coasts,” Reding concludes. “In the last decade, meth has become an apt metaphor for the division.”
(Initially, there was some grumbling in Oelwein about Reding’s book. A Minneapolis newspaper said the town was “split” over its portrayal in Methland. No doubt. Towns split over the official time for Halloween trick or treating. Tuesday night, Reding returned to Oelwein and the reception was good. This is another trait of a good small town. People there admit their problems and face the facts.)
The indomitable mayor of Oelwein, Larry Murphy, is the hero of Methland and is an easily recognizable character to anyone who has lived in a successful small town. He’s the guy who doesn’t give up, who always has a new idea, who never sees the bad side of a situation or a time.
After years of fighting meth, Mayor Murphy staged what he called a Community Burial Ceremony of Gloom and Doom in November 2007:
“What was contained in the coffin carried by a procession of townsfolk were the symbolic remnants of Oelwein’s economic and social helplessness. What Murphy wanted to make clear, however corny it seemed, was that people should no longer take suffering as a precondition of their lives. Murphy wanted people to fight, and to be aggressive and prideful about the rebuilding.”
No wonder Reding is upset about all the to-do about Roland Jarvis, the meth addict who burned up both his mother’s house and himself in a pathetic display of weakness. Methland is about human will and civic survival, about the strength that can be found in a town despite a world that would just as soon see it disappear.
Editor’s Note: Yonder editor Bill Bishop read an early version of Methland and provided a “blurb” for the hardcover edition.