Heartbreak in the Heartland
The Death and Life of an American Small Town
By Nick Reding
Bloomsbury. 255 pp. $25
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin created a small scandal when she told a North Carolina crowd, "We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America." Outside of whatever political hay the left made of rhetoric elevating small-town Americans over their more urban counterparts, Palin's comments tapped into a central myth of our national culture -- that there is something fundamentally undiluted and authentic about small towns that is implicitly absent from larger cities. Small-town residents, the story goes, are honest, hard-working, religiously observant and somehow just more American than the rest of America. In his persuasive new book, "Methland," journalist Nick 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.
Over four years, Reding studied meth production and addiction in Oelwein, Iowa, a rural community about 300 miles from Chicago. With a population of just over 6,000, 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.
There is no more horrifying example of the drug's ravages than Roland Jarvis, who began using meth as a way to keep up his energy through double shifts at a local meat-processing plant. Apparently doing so was nothing unusual, and until the early 1980s an Oelwein physician would routinely prescribe methamphetamines for fatigued workers. When the plant where Jarvis worked was de-unionized and his wages slashed by two-thirds, Jarvis went from an occasional meth user to a habitual user and then a manufacturer. One night, in a fit of drug-induced paranoia, he attempted, disastrously, to dispose of his cooking chemicals. In the ensuing fire, he was so horribly burned that paramedics could only watch while the flesh literally melted from his body and Jarvis begged the police to kill him. Reding's description of Jarvis now, using his fingerless hands to lift a meth pipe to his noseless face, is among the most haunting images in the book.
Reding 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 1980s. It was then, he argues, that one-time union employees earning good wages and protected by solid benefits, like Roland Jarvis, 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. 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.
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 perfect for, among other things, keeping up soldier morale. It was used by several governments in World War II, including the U.S. military, despite studies showing that it produced "psychotic" and "anti-social" behaviors including "increased libido, sexual aggression, violence, hallucinations, dementia, bodily shaking, hyperthermia, sadomasochism, inability to orgasm, Satanic thoughts, general immorality, and chronic insomnia." Nonetheless (and overlooking the vexing question of how it's possible to measure satanic thoughts), meth continued to gain popularity, largely because of its ability to make people "feel good" -- and industrious. "It's one thing for a drug to be associated with sloth, like heroin," Reding writes, "But it's wholly another when a formerly legal and accepted narcotic exists in a one-to-one ratio with the defining ideal of American culture."
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. "Meth just wasn't as interesting to report on once it could no longer be cast as a fundamentally American morality play. . . .," Reding argues. "In many cases, the postmortem became a witch hunt, as bloggers and newspaper columnists called into question whether the meth epidemic had ever existed 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.
David Liss is the author of six novels, including "The Devil's Company," which will be published in July.