Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, by Nick Reding

One-line summary: Meth is bad! Really, really bad! And agribusiness and globalism caused the meth epidemic.

That's a not-entirely-accurate summary of the author's premise, but it's pretty close. This was an interesting book with a concise history of methamphetamine, from its invention by a Japanese chemist in the 19th century to its legal and popular prescription as a cure for everything in the early 20th century, and later as a way to enable factory workers to work double shifts, truck drivers to drive all night, and make depressed housewives happy, to its current incarnation as the WORST DRUG EVER ZOMG!!! IT EATS YOUR BRAIN AND TURNS YOU INTO A TWEAKING PSYCHOPATHIC AXE-MURDERER WHO WILL RUN THROUGH THE STREETS LAUGHING WITH YOUR SKIN ON FIRE AND FUNDS ORGANIZED CRIME AND TERRORISTS and say, haven't we heard all this before?

More below the cut.


Amazon: Average rating: 3.80. Mode: 5 stars.
Goodreads: Average rating: 3.60. Mode: 4 stars.

The dramatic story of the methamphetamine epidemic as it sweeps the American heartland—a timely, moving, very human account of one community’s attempt to battle its way to a brighter future.

Crystal methamphetamine is widely considered to be the most dangerous drug in the world, and nowhere is that more true than in the small towns of the American heartland.

Methland tells the story of Oelwein, Iowa (pop. 6,159), which, like thousands of other small towns 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. As if this weren’t enough to deal with, an incredibly cheap, longlasting, and highly addictive drug has rolled into town.

Over a period of four years, journalist Nick Reding brings us into the heart of Oelwein through a cast of intimately drawn characters, including: Clay Hallburg, the town doctor, who fights meth even as he struggles with his own alcoholism; Nathan Lein, the town prosecutor, whose caseload is filled almost exclusively with meth-related crime; and Jeff Rohrick, a meth addict, still trying to kick the habit after twenty years.

Tracing the connections between the lives touched by the drug and the global forces that set the stage for the epidemic, Methland offers a vital and unique perspective on a pressing contemporary tragedy.

Now, lest anyone think I am making light of the dangers of methamphetamine and the havoc it wreaks on lives, I am not. Meth is bad. Like any addictive chemical substance that alters your brain and makes you do stupid shit, both while under the influence and in order to get more of it. Reding does talk about the specifics of its manufacture, the chemistry behind it, the effects on mind and body, and the reasons why many people think it's so much worse than heroin or crack or... alcohol. And this is the first point where the book failed to make its case for me. Because every generation has had its "ZOMG! MOST DANGEROUS DRUG EPIDEMIC EVER!" panic, and this completely ignores the reality that for every brain-fried tweaker who takes an axe to his girlfriend, there are probably hundreds of those overworked truck drivers and bored housewives getting by with a little "pharmaceutical assistance." This is not a good thing, but my point is that most people who use drugs do not turn into the worst-case scenarios, and by now, most people know this, which leads to a certain cynicism and even indifference when we're being told about yet another drug that will totally turn you into a drooling addict selling yourself on the streets if you ever take it even once!

I think that Reding pretty much accepted the "most dangerous drug ever" narrative without question because his book was specifically about the effects of this particular drug. He doesn't exaggerate, but he does dutifully provide lots of sensationalistic stories about "batchers" melting their faces off and blowing up their houses, without pointing out that meth is not a new drug and somehow it didn't gut America in the half century or so that it was legal.

Because meth has been seen predominantly as a drug of the American heartland, Reding wrote this book as the story of one American town, Oelwein, Iowa, which has been afflicted by the meth epidemic. The real story, according to Reding, is how Oelwein and thousands of towns like it have been economically devastated by the collapse of family farms, the consolidation of agribusiness, and the loss of blue collar jobs overseas, leading to poverty and desperation and an environment where meth is both the only escape and the only source of income for many.

This is also true, and also not new. Anyone who watched The Wire has seen how this works. There is no question that poverty breeds despair and crime, but I think Reding connects cause and effect too directly between very large economic issues and one particular symptom.

While Methland is described as being about Oeilwein, Iowa, the story of that town only takes up perhaps half the book. The rest is about the history of meth and (more interesting to me) how meth went from a "biker drug" cooked and sold by small-time operators to a heavily centralized and industrialized international network run by the so-called "Mexican Mafia," an organization that does owe its rise directly to meth. This history is tangled with pharmaceutical lobbying, sausage factory legislation, and Lori Arnold, sister of actor Tom Arnold, who it turns out was a huge drug kingpin who pretty much pioneered the meth industry in the midwest, before she went to prison and the big boys down south took over.

Verdict: An interesting book about how crystal meth became America's most feared drug, but not comprehensive or analytical enough, in my opinion. That said, Reding's writing style is better than you find in most journalistic non-fiction, and his interactions with a variety of people from judges and doctors to neo-Nazi methheads add interest and are anything but dry.
Tags: books, non-fiction, reviews

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