In 1999, as a journalist for magazines like Outside and Harper's, Nick Reding noticed that crystal methamphetamine was becoming part of everyday life across America. He saw the problem in small towns everywhere, acutely understood by locals, ignored nationally. The more Reding looked, the more he saw, saying, "I began to get the feeling that the drug was somehow following me around." Out of a decade of research, an all-encompassing examination of the how the epidemic came to be and who shares the blame, came Methland.
It's the story of Oelwein Iowa, a rural town with a population of 6,126, dealing with a drug problem. Reding spent four years with a fascinating cast of local characters including trafficker Lori Arnold (Tom's sister); Dr. Clay Hallberg, the town physician with sobriety issues of his own; Major, a former member of an Aryan Nation gang trying to stay clean and raise his young son; and Larry Murphy, the mayor hellbent on bringing in industry and Main Street revitalization.
Oelwein is a microcosm of small towns everywhere, but Methland shows that the drug abuse is a symptom -- not the cause -- of the deeply ingrained problems facing rural America. Reding connects the dots between the growth of the meth epidemic and the economic realities brought about through the combination of Big Ag, Big Pharma, globalization, illegal immigration, and the low-paying no-benefit scraps left behind.
At times harrowing, at times infuriating, Methland is an elegy, not a eulogy. The book shows that dedicated citizens can have a positive impact in the face of monumental obstacles. Make no mistake though, the local humanity in Oelwein flies in the face of the almighty global dollar.
Methland has gotten great reviews from outlets big and small, although not without some local controversy, of course. Reding and I had a long rambling conversation that touched on a number of subjects including: why meth is the most American drug, the politics of Big Ag on a little town, the role Wild Turkey played in the writing process, where the hint of amphetamine in your arugula comes from, the reason he didn't go the Hunter S. Thompson route, and why Frank Rich needs to get out of the city.
What was the general idea behind Methland and how did you decide upon the setting?
Reding: The book is four years in the life of the small town of Oelwein Iowa, which has a pretty bad meth problem. It follows people like the prosecutor, the town doctor, the mayor and an addict. It's not entirely a book about methamphetamine, it's about a town that puts itself back together and ends up much better off than it was. I didn't pick Oelwein because it has the worst meth problem in the world. I chose it because when I called Dr. Clay Hallberg, we hit it off. Basically, he and others in Oelwein agreed to let me hang around.
Was your family's connection to Iowa important, or could it have been a small town in Montana, California, etc.
Reding: Methland could've been written about most small towns in most states. I had to find one where the people would accept me. In terms of my family connection, it was coincidental, but it became more important as time went on. My Dad was raised in rural Iowa and worked for Monsanto for forty-two years. I tried to humanize everyone in the book, including addicts and traffickers, but I couldn't find a face for a lot of what I was blaming for the meth problem, which is big agriculture. Low and behold, it does have a human face right here in my own family.
Did you know when you set out to write Methland that it would be a book about how small-town life in America is lived now and not just a book about the drug itself?
Reding: From the beginning, my intention was always to tell the story of a small town with a meth problem, not the meth problem in a small town. I've always thought the story was about Oelwein as opposed to the drug. Meth is nothing more than a lens in which to view the economic, political and cultural realities of the rural United States.
In the book, you quote former Harvard sociologist Patricia Case as saying meth is "the most American drug." What did she mean by that?
Reding: Case's argument, which I agree with, is that because historically, meth has been the drug of the working class, it fits the American ideals best. It exists in this perfect one-to-one ratio with the American mania for work. Meth helps people to work harder because they don't have to eat, sleep or hydrate. Alcohol makes you drool all over yourself and pass out, coke you have do another line every twenty minutes, but with meth you stay high and focused for a long time.
If meth is part of the American DNA, is it possible to eliminate the problem?
Reding: It's too easy to say "people are going to do it no matter what," or even simply "it's their fault." We need to minimize the reasons why people start using meth. What's the proportion of people who start selling and using meth because of economic realities? The more people are given a reason to feel shitty and do meth, the more people will do it.
Did the meth users form a separate society from other Oelwein townspeople or were they intertwined?
Reding: Some people in town would maintain that they didn't know what I was talking about. While over their shoulder, a dude is trembling in his trench coat in the middle of summer as he's picking through the trash. Meth was in all the bars, and there's a lot of drinking in the Midwest, so there was crossover. This is anecdotal, but almost everyone I talked to, whether they wanted to deny the meth thing, knew somebody in jail, be it a family member, a neighbor, or whatever. Forget the indirect effects of meth. It seemed like the drug directly affected a disproportionate percentage of Oelwein's population.
Was it hard to spend four years around hardcore meth users who kept on using? Or tried to quit and failed?
Reding: A lot of it was depressing. I kind of dreaded going to some of the houses over and over again. The one thing that mitigated against that was I liked the vast majority of people and we had some enjoyable times. There were a couple of people I wasn't fond of, but I tried to keep that out of the book.
Were some of the frustrations you must've felt lessened by the positive changes in Oelwein brought on by dedicated local citizens?
Reding: Absolutely. My hopes for the book and the town were in some ways the same. A book about meth addicts would be really boring. As time went on, I was hanging around hoping that things in Oelwein would turn around. And they did. The cool thing was that as the town improved, I had so much more to talk about, like new industry and town refurbishment projects, than the latest number of meth busts. It made for a better story. Ultimately, people need hope.
One aspect you didn't touch on in Methland is the environmental aspect, but I was curious if you knew anything about that...
Reding: To my knowledge there haven't been a lot of studies, but I read recently in the New York Times that the incredible toxicity of an in-home meth lab remains long after it's gone, and new owners subsequently end up getting sick. That's a microcosm, but one thing I did see that's indicative of a global environmental issue is in California's Central Valley where meth-making junk gets dumped in the irrigation canals. It's like the Cuyahoga River when we were kids, if you threw a match it would light on fire. I don't think it's a stretch to think that crap would seep into the groundwater. There could be meth-tainted oranges, lettuce and whatever else.
Speaking of the New York Times, while reading Methland, I saw this quote in Frank Rich's July 11 column and I wanted to get your thoughts on it. Rich was writing about Sarah Palin's resignation, but this passage jumped out at me because ostensibly, he was talking about towns like Oelwein.
"[Palin] stands for a genuine movement: a dwindling white nonurban America that is aflame with grievances and awash in self-pity as the country hurtles into the 21st century and leaves it behind," New York Times 7/11/09
Reding: I think that Frank Rich quote speaks more to a stereotypical and shallow point-of-view about the rural United States. It's true that the towns are shrinking, but "self-pity?" I wonder how many times Rich has been to Oelwein, or any other small town, and Bergen County doesn't count. I'd like to see the evidence of these small town attitudes from a guy who has probably never been there.
Isn't there an undercurrent of white male anger, a sense that outsiders are trying to destroy their way of life?
Reding: The reality is, regardless of skin color or gender, people are trying to destroy small town American life. And they're doing it economically. If that's what people in these communities are angry about, they're right. That's what big agriculture is doing and that's what the pharmaceutical industry is doing. Going back to the Clinton years, there's this notion that globalization is somehow beyond criticism, that it's a pure form of self-sustaining economic perfection. It's not true, and if you'd like to see where it's least true, go to Oelwein.
Is meth a drug that can be kicked?
Reding: There's a big controversy about how well addicts can be treated because not enough research has been done. It's going to take years of study to figure out what meth does to a person over the long haul. The latest research I've read indicates that meth addiction isn't impossible to treat. Meth addiction may end up being no more difficult to treat than alcoholism. Not that it's easy, but it's a lot better than untreatable, right?
What's been the local approach to dealing with arrests related to meth?
Reding: Thanks in large part to one of Methland's main characters, Nathan Lein, Fayette County is going to have drug courts. They are very popular in rural America and go against how most people think of conservative Middle America. Drug courts are the opposite of the "lock 'em up and throw away the key" approach. It's a separate court for people who've been adjudicated for drug offenses, and essentially puts offenders through a 12-18 month probation where they move through four stages. The onus is placed on making them attend meetings, and securing and holding a job. Personally, I'm all for it.
You essentially say in Methland that we should care about towns like Oelwein because it's part of "us " as American citizens. It's a noble idea, but when I lived and worked in the Bronx in the early 1990s, I don't recall the good people of Iowa, or anywhere else in the country, caring about the crack epidemic that was ravaging the inner city. Don't most of us just say, "as long as it's not in my backyard..."
Reding: People don't have to give a shit about it, but the U.S. government does. Representatives and Senators from Iowa should give a shit about it. The government is for all fifty states and not just the coasts. In so far as there have been many political decisions -- which I try to document in the book -- that have favored industries that degrade a place like Oelwein. In a nuts-and-bolts way, a lot of the problems are the obvious and direct result of the intense affair with deregulation starting in the 1980s right through the Bush years. A time period that coincided with the growth of the meth epidemic.
Big agriculture plays a large role in Methland in terms of what happened to Oelwein's economy due to falling wages, immigration, the death of family farms, etc. This has been a recurring theme in other notable books like Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and Nobodies. The problems are well known, but can anything be done, or are small towns just going to have to live with it?
Reding: If people, primarily politicians, would talk about it honestly, that would be a beginning. Republicans and Democrats are equally duplicitous when it comes to the Big Ag conundrum. It all comes down to everyone saying, "If we don't have these bad unethical jobs, then we're not going to have any jobs at all." I'm not an economist, but I think that's bullshit. And without trying to change the status quo, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
One thing that gets bandied about is if a company like Cargill wants to move most of its operations offshore, then heavily tax everything they produce. The idea that they're going to go away unless we allow them to abuse everyone is specious. They're already global companies with operations all over the world. There's precedence for this. Theodore Roosevelt's legend was built busting up trusts, and the main targets were the meatpacking conglomerates.
Did you ever consider going the Hunter S. Thompson route and trying meth?
Reding: I don't like Hunter Thompson's writing, so I think that's the answer right there. There was no way I was going to quit cigarettes while reporting this book. And if Methland had a sponsor, it would have to be Wild Turkey, but no, I never considered meth. People have said to me a thousand times, "How could you write about it without having done it." Did Truman Capote have to murder a family in Kansas to write In Cold Blood?
You include a couple of horrific scenes, like the story of Roland Jarvis, a former meatpacker who lost a lot of his skin, and his nose, in a home lab explosion, but continues smoking meth. Or the story of two users in Ottumwa that involves an enema, pigs-in-a-blanket and bathtubs filled with piles of sculpted human excrement. This is the stuff that book sales are made of. How did you decide what stories to keep and which ones to discard?
Reding: Jarvis is a main character in Methland and he told me that story. There is no way I wasn't going to include it. In terms of the sensationalized part of the book, it's a home run I'm sorry to say. Through most drafts of the book there were no other graphic examples, but near the very end, I decided to include the pigs-in-a-blanket section. That story isn't really about a guy shoving things up his ass, but how authorities have to contend with the effects of the drug. Meth presents a lot of problems that are hard to figure out how to handle.
How are the current economic conditions affecting Oelwein?
Reding: Actually, Oelwein has bucked the national trend by bringing more high-paying manufacturing jobs into town. An outfit came in to one of the old meatpacking plants that's making cancer drugs from sow ears. Talk about making a silk purse... They've added something like 400 good jobs in a town of 6,100. To put that into perspective, twenty years ago, 2000 out of the town's 7,500 people worked in middle-class meatpacking jobs, so Oelwein isn't back up to that level, even proportionately. But given the way the economy is going, I'd say they're rolling sevens right now.
At the same time, Lein told me that they've got enough meth cases in the last six months that he and the other attorneys can't handle it.
What would like to see done nationally to help deal with the meth problem?
Reding: The Combat Meth Act that was passed in 2005 was supposed to be the be-all and end-all. It's a joke. Nothing is federally mandated. It's left up to the states. I think the law should be recast, so it's federally enforced and the pharmaceutical lobby doesn't have free reign to screw it up on a state level. That would be a good start.
Lastly, how do you feel right now about Oelwein's prospects for the future?
Reding: I honestly don't know how to answer that question. I think the turnaround has been remarkable and can serve as an example for other places. Hopefully, Oelwein will keep getting better and better, and not be susceptible to these large-scale forces. However, across rural America, things aren't going to improve on a broad long-term basis just because towns are able to crawl their way out of the meth epidemic. Unfortunately, it's hard to believe anything is going to change because the economic system is faulty and the deck is stacked against rural America. If we don't change the way business is done in small towns like Oelwein, we'll be stuck right where we are, perpetually.
(Photos and promotional materials couresty of Nick Reding.)