Review: ‘Methland’ by Nick Reding

by Kim on April 6, 2012 · 18 comments

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Title: Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town
Author: Nick Reding
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Year: 2009
Acquired: Bought
Rating: ★★★★★

Review: Methland is an almost perfect example of the kind of narrative nonfiction that I love to read. In fact, if I ever have someone come up and ask me, “What is narrative nonfiction?” I’m probably just going to shove Methland into their hands and refuse to discuss the topic further until they take the time to read the book. Watch out, people.

Methland is, as the title suggests, the story of methamphetamine in the United States as seen through the struggle of one small town, Oelwein, Iowa. Home to just over 6,000 people, Oelwein is what you might consider a typical small town in rural America — a short main street that has almost as many bars as there are churches that relies on farming and small businesses to survive. But underneath the facade lies the fact that methamphetamine, locally manufactured or shipped in from major Mexican drug cartels, is a problem for many local residents.

When he first started working on the book, Reding thought he would be writing a “large-scale true crime story” about meth. In actuality, Reding found that meth is better described as “a sociological cancer,” spreading through the systems of small town after small town. As one of the protagonists of Methland explains,

As with the diseases, meth’s particular danger lay in its ability to metastasize throughout the body, in this case the body politic, and to weaken the social fabric of a place, be it a region, a town, a neighborhood, or a home. Just as brain cancer often spread to the lungs, said Clay, meth often spread between classes, families and friends. Meth’s associated rigors affect the school, the police, the mayor, the hospital, and the town businesses. As a result, … there is a king of collective low self-esteem that sets in once a town’s culture must react solely to a singular — and singularly negative — stimulus.

At the same time, the book is almost equally about the decline of rural America and why meth was able to find a foothold in that part of the country in the first place. As Reding notes, “the real story is as much about the death of a way of life as it is about the birth of a drug.”

That last sentence expresses much of what I loved about this book and what makes it great narrative nonfiction. The narrative arc of Olewin’s battle with methamphetamine from 2005 to 2007 serves as a sort of branch to hold all sorts of extra information — the impact Big Agriculture has had on rural America, the way U.S. drug policy has impacted the international meth trade, the totally insane ways people will manufacture meth (and the awful, awful things meth does to the body). The story of meth is fascinating, but the part that keeps the book moving along is the often gruesome, terrifying, and emotionally meaningful story of how the people of Oelwein, led by a focused an local mayor, doctor and prosecutor, took on meth (and the other serious social and economic threats to their town) to try and save their community.

Obviously, my love of this book is helped by the fact that I live in a small town much like Oelwein, and meth has been and continues to be a problem in the community. Like Oelwein, the meth problem is being addressed, but it’s still a dark part of the town’s story. But I really don’t think you have to have any knowledge or love of small town life to find the story Reding is telling both compelling and relevant today.

Despite (or perhaps because of) it’s grim subject and occasionally graphic descriptions of the damage meth can do (there’s literal face-melting, people, which is just to horrifying to imagine), Methland is a book that’s difficult to put down and even more difficult not to gush about. This one comes highly, highly recommended.

Other Reviews: Citizen Reader | A Book A Week | Open Mind, Insert Book |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

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