Methland: A Drug Book All About Rural Hope
[imgbelt img=Oelweinamis.jpg]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.
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.
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.