A Light on the Ground
By Nick Reding
In the process of seeing other human being as “one of us” rather than a “them” is a matter of detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like and of a redescription of what we ourselves are like. This not a task for theory but for genres such as ethnography, the journalist’s report, the comic book, the docudrama, and, especially, the novel. Fiction…gives us the kinds of details about suffering by people to whom we had previously not attended…[and] gives us the details about what sorts of cruelty we are capable of and thereby lets us redescribe ourselves.
–Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity.
In the year and a half since the initial release of Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, I have driven seven times from my home in Tuscaloosa, AL to my mother-in-law’s house in Florissant, MO, a working class suburb of St. Louis. The speediest route leads me out of Tuscaloosa on a two lane state road through the west central counties of Alabama, which are forever covered in kudzu and shaded by stands of loblolly and Georgia pines. There are few towns to speak of, and the two or three I do encounter are a quick hodgepodge of sprawling brick ranch homes, collapsed wooden sheds, deer processing plants, and gas stations doubling as tanning salons. More prevalent are the abruptly reached roads of red, clayish dirt. I imagine each leads deep into the forest and onto a small, active homestead pre-dating Reconstruction. No doubt, the owners wish to hide from the Census Bureau and would blow a hole through my chest if I didn’t raise my hands and concoct a lie on how I got my car “all turned round.” The babygirls would watch from the sagging porch as their camo-geared father offered indecipherable directions back to the main road while his wife fetched me a tin mug of sweet tea.
Eventually, I pick up US route 78—which, in the six years since I moved to Alabama, has blossomed from a winding stop-and-go road and into a full-blown interstate. My wife, child, and I speed through Alabama and Mississippi, cross into the desolate outskirts of Memphis (its most resonant symbol the twenty-four-hour daycare across the boulevard from a strip club) and then merge onto interstate I-55, where roughly three hundred miles of Arkansas and Missouri Bootheel cotton fields give way to the low, craggy hills leading up into St Louis proper. In these hills lies Jefferson County, MO, a county possessing sonorous-sounding towns such as Festus or Herculaneum. Thanks to the magic of 1950s American engineering, I never need to encounter these towns as they are just names on prominent green exit signs. Their streets and homes are mysterious as the dirt in an Arkansas cotton field or the ends of those red dirt roads that fly by my periphery on my drive. If over my cup of morning coffee a day later, I page through the St. Louis Dispatch and learn that a methamphetamine lab exploded and killed a mother, her toddlers, and the family dog, I have the luxury of treating them as vague, statistical tragedies before moving to the sports page. And if I’m not in St. Louis, I never learn of these deaths because that family’s crisis exists in relative anonymity. Most large American cities, despite their epidemics and accompanying murder rates, have national destinations and mythologies. When I came of age during the East Coast crack-cocaine epidemic, cities such as New York, Philadelphia, or Washington DC had regionally (if not nationally) known media heads and enormous, byzantine infrastructures that brought the drug crisis into the national consciousness without the city and its inhabitants being solely defined by it. Small towns or rural hamlets, on the other hand, are self-contained, closed systems. They either reside as rhetorical fodder for politicians (think Sarah Palin and middle-American values) or as a momentary grid from an airplane window.
It is this image of “fly over zones” that begins Nick Reding’s Methland, a gripping book of reportage, analysis, and ethnography that dives head first into the methamphetamine epidemic plaguing rural America—from the Deep South to the Midwest to remote locales such as Idaho and Montana. The book’s introduction plays understated: Reding harkens back to his small-town roots in Illinois, where autumns were passed duck hunting. Very slyly, Reding then introduces two different young men—a Neo-Nazi and his black friend—both at a bar in a town neighboring the author’s boyhood home. Both are drinking “Buckets of Fuck It” (beer, ice, and whatever liquor) and shooting pool, but it is Sean, the Neo-Nazi, who moves with an agitated confidence and who has profoundly dilated pupils—he is, Reding deduces, in the middle of a crank binge. It is this image that leads us into the book’s primary locale of Oelwein, Iowa. Once a town thought of as a Chicago gangster’s getaway and then a home to meat packing and farming, Reding discovers an epicenter of drug production and usage. Unlike most illegal drugs, methamphetamine is produced both in Mexico among five competing drug cartels and by many of its users in what Reding labels “Beavis and Butthead” labs, which really aren’t labs at all but often double-wide trailers or garden homes. All someone needs to make “meth” or “crank” or “Nazi Dope” (because the drug was given to German soldiers during WWII to keep them alert) is—according to Reding—anhydrous ammonia, cold medicine, a lithium strip inside a battery, Coleman lantern fluid, a soda bottle, and “a ninth-grade knowledge of chemistry” . Thus “smurfers”—freelance addicts who go from pharmacy to pharmacy to buy up all the Sudafed they can—supply the “cooks” (the meth makers) their supplies. The “cooks” then often act as dealers and/or distributors, infesting the community with meth. And often the cooks are addicts themselves, such as Oelwein’s Roland Jarvis, who gained notoriety among the townsfolk and Methland’s readers and reviewers for being so high that forty five minutes after a failed attempt at making meth and instead blowing up his mother’s house, he noticed an egg-white substance on his skin he peeled off with an alarming ease—that “egg” was his skin.
Methland has moments of heartbreaking grotesquery and cruelty—a cranked-out father “toilet training” his two year old by forcing the infant to stand on a chair until the child collapses of exhaustion; DHS reps trashing a rescued child’s stuffed animals and plastic toys, since those playthings now require HazMat suits to handle safely—but that’s not the book’s main narrative or rhetorical thrust. Instead, Methland’s ambition is to comprehensively and complexly render Oelwein both as a unique organism and as a cell in the body of America. Reding imbeds in Oelwein for four years and extensively interviews town officials, prominent citizens, jailed dealers, recovering addicts, and everyone in between. He wants the reader to not simply identify Oelwein by its drug use, but by how this epidemic offers a contemporary lens into how small towns exist. Yet, Methland is truly remarkable because it also wants the reader to know—at his or her most core level—how small towns exist despite numerous economic, governmental, and social obstacles that lies outside Oelwein’s control. How can an Oelwein make a pharmaceutical giant reverse the chemistry of Sudafed to render it impotent in meth production? How can an Oelwein make the US Senate pass a bill that requires every pharmacy clerk to check ID’s against a national database when companies like CVS fight that legislation tooth and nail? How can an Oelwein exist when Mexican cartels blend in with both legal and illegal immigrants at a poultry plant or when to live rurally (as in, run a farm) is a life of sure poverty if one chooses to produce independently of agri-business giants?
It would be disingenuous, however, to claim that nothing has changed since Reding posited these larger social questions. Even in the brief time since Methland came and went on The NYT Best Sellers List, governmental legislation and enforcement, especially at the state level, have evolved in the fight against methamphetamine’s social and economic havoc. There is no doubt that Meth—like Crack in the 90s and Cocaine in the 70s—will eventually fade from the national spotlight. The corporate practices of pharmaceutical and agribusiness conglomerates will no doubt change or create a new cloak. The DEA officials, who insist on doing their jobs despite a lack of resource and legislative support, will no doubt retire, die, or witness another era of legislative ambition and corruption. However, Methland’s lasting currency—and this book is made to last—will not reside in its wide-reaching and convincing arguments on politics, law, science, and illegal drug use. Rather, like Capote’s Kansas, Conover’s prison, and Egger’s Muslim-centered New Orleans, Reding’s Oelwein is transformed from an isolated, symbolically distorted community into a highly distinct, dynamic, and lived-in location. Reding and his contemporaries achieve this conversion by mixing hard-nosed, lunch-bucket journalism with the novelist’s gift of storytelling and character development. Individual psyches are complexly rendered and caught up in—yet supersede—a discrete crisis. Twenty years down the line, a reader will be outraged not because Methland’s politics are generationally congruent but because the lives in this book feel like they matter and all of them reside on a crumbling precipice.
A lesser book would leave the town’s inhabitants as dialectical archetypes: the law enforcer vs. the drug producer, the victimized addict vs. the affluent mayor. Perhaps, a notorious drug addict or power-hungry mayor—hell, maybe even the town itself—would undergo an easily distilled moral transformation. Reding refuses to tell such a story. This author’s genius lies in how he allows his subjects the space to have their own language and natural internal conflicts. In true journalistic fashion, he renders the peculiar detail or behavioral quirk efficiently and with restraint. For instance, in the opening section of the book, the reader is introduced to Nathan Lein, the assistant Fayette County prosecutor:
Nathan is six feet nine inches tall and weighs 280 pounds. He moves with surprising grace around his tiny, four-room house in Oelwein’s Third Ward. What evidence of there is of the great burdens in Nathan’s life is limited to a habit of slowly raising his hand to his face and then rubbing the tip of his nose in one quick motion, as if to remove a stain only he can perceive. Perhaps knowing his size will lend extra weight to what he says, Nathan fashions his sentences from the leanest of fibers. It’s a habit that underscores the gravity of the contradictions by which his life is defined.
Over the course of the four years Reding primarily imbeds himself in Oelwein, we see the contradictions take shape and play out. We learn that Nathan comes from parents who evoke the figures of Grant Wood’s American Gothic—people who are serious and stern, who are committed to sun up to sundown back breaking work, and who in one askew glance bring down judgment as if issued from God himself. Lein dispassionately prosecutes at the same time he refuses to allow his parents even a glimpse into his love life—a patient but periodically soft-spoken assertive social worker, Jamie. When she asks Nathan why he keeps their cohabitation secret when his parents lived only 12 miles away, Reding reveals:
Nathan’s response was that, no matter how interested or nice his parents seemed now, they would eventually turn on Jamie. That’s what they’d done his whole life, he said: lured women in, only to then become so critical that it ended up ruining Nathan’s relationship.
If Reding had only captured one or two main character’s particular personal and psychological tensions, this book would be good but not remarkable. But among all the people he interviews and develops relationships with in Oelwein—no matter how cursorily—he is able to capture the basic cornerstone of human life: a set of competing internal conflicts that are forced to play out through choices informed by a larger social chaos and a character’s mysterious, internal wiring.
Like many well-written books about America’s “war on drugs,” Methland balances personal account with systemic analysis. This is not remarkable in and of itself. No, Methland’s remarkable because it tackles a flooring array of topics and it rarely overreaches. Reding’s intellect exudes authority because of its contingent reasoning, pinpoint precision, and the rare ability to synthesize vastly disparate fields of knowledge into a cohesive argument that eschews reductionism. For instance, when discussing the impossibility of enforcing the Combat Meth Law, Reding is able to operate as reporter and theoretician. Reding allows Alex Gonzalez, an officer with the Hoover, Alabama Police Department, to take the narrative lead and describe a chilling scene between police and Mexican cartel traffickers:
We’ll get a load one day, a big one, maybe a hundred pounds headed to Atlanta. Or maybe $1.2 million in cash headed back to Mexico. And that night the traffickers call you on your cell phone and say, ‘Nice job, man! That was a big bust!’ It’s like we’re friendly almost—joking with each other. Then they ask about your wife, and it gets very creepy; they want you to know how much they’ve got on you. They say, ‘Too bad while you were taking the five hours with that hundred pounds, we got another thousand pounds past you.’ The hundred pounds was just a decoy.
How can a local cop combat an organization that will always outgun, outspend, and in turn, outsmart you? A reader is left to wonder how anyone is safe as these kinds of stories are recounted throughout the book. Some armchair pundits might argue the drug crisis would ease if the community would invest in schools or create new jobs. The problem, however, is that Reding has the intellectual acumen to convincingly implicate governmental and corporate systems themselves so that entire economic structures fall into the mix. The food industry and its immigration practices are linked to the meth crisis in that “[that] relationship is driven by the conceit that drugs, like viruses, attack weak hosts. Or to put it another way, narcotics and poverty—along with the loss of hope and place Clay Hallberg has described—mutually reinforce one another”. There is nothing earth-shattering in that observation, but this observation leads Reding—within only two pages—to inductively describe the pre-1980 farm economy as one located in small business at its best, then explain the soul and purse crushing effects of mega-corporations like Gillette (who took over Iowa Ham) and Monsanto/Cargill who simply bio-engineered second-rate feed at the expense of individual farmers, then analyze how these mega-corporations disenfranchised small rural communities across the country, and then conclude the passage by linking Marx to Teddy Roosevelt’s trust busting. Reding should sound like rushed conspiracy theory, but he doesn’t because of his intellectual precision and specificity of terms.
At the end of the day, however, Methland is not The Jungle for the twenty-first century. The pessimism of a Stephen Crane or Frank Norris is counterbalanced by a hard-earned, bittersweet dignity Reding affords his subjects. Perhaps it is Roland Jarvis who personifies Methland’s attitude best. It would be easy to define Jarvis solely by his self-inflicted deformity, but to do so would neglect this character’s elusive trajectory. Jarvis falls on and off the map over the course of the book. He is pathetic and, in the most sad and tragically genuine way, comic. At the end of the book, after months of trying to contact Jarvis, a relieved Reding reaches him after rumors circulated about a potential suicide:
“No,” he said, “no one’s committed suicide.”
Aside from that, it was strikes and gutters, as some people say in Oelwein: ups and downs, goods and bads. Jarvis’s middle son had finally received a new kidney and was doing well. Jarvis’s mother, though, would be headed back to jail soon, this time for driving drunk. His two daughters were doing well, too; one had graduated from Oelwein High that spring. He’d been fishing with them at the town lake the other day.
“Same old, same old,” said Jarvis.
I asked him if he was clean.
“Not really,” he said. “But I’m still here.”
Still here: a bittersweet relief about Jarvis and about Oelwein as a whole. In a risky move by the mayor, he hedged his bets on enticing corporation to his town of roughly 6,000 by massively regentrifying the downtown. By the end of the book, there is a community college, a new corporation, and a hint of some brighter days ahead. This hard-earned hope—a lifeline brought to fruition by Larry Murphy, Nathan Lein, and the hundreds of unnamed Oelwein citizens—might partially explain the utter betrayal much of Oelwein felt upon the initial hardback release of Methland. The same people who spoke openly to Reding-the-reporter froze Reding-the-author out, even after Reding reveals it was his wife’s alcoholism—not small town nostalgia—that was the book’s catalyst.
Nonetheless, the Oelwein library invited Reding to address the community postpublication and Reding not only came but then chose to publish the experience as an afterword in Methland’s subsequent reissuings. There is no grand standing or bold justifications in this passage, just as there was none in his Q-&-A with the town. Reding eschewed any kind of opening speech or contextualization and instead fielded a question from a multi-pierced, young woman: How could you do this to us? It was this moment in the book I realized that for all an outsider’s altruism and desire for social change, a small town also functions as an extended family. Even if the town knew Reding was writing about Oelwein and its struggles with methamphetamine addiction, a physiological and emotional disconnect takes hold when that friendly outsider reveals your family’s deep, dark secrets to an entire nation. It’s as if the town did not rally together in the face of crisis itself, but in the face of a stranger airing the particulars of one family’s dysfunctions—this no one who had just flown over your house one day or who had randomly exited, that one time, from the interstate.
Joseph P. Wood is the author of two full-length collection of poetry, I & We (CW Books, 2010) and Fold of the Map (Salmon Poetry, forthcoming 2012), as well five chapbooks. Previous poems and reviews can be found in Boston Review, Bomb, Verse, Hotel Amerika, Indiana Review, Rain Taxi, Gently Read Literature, among others. He’s at work on series of essays about notions of “closed” and “open”. He teaches at The University of Alabama and lives with his wife and daughter in Tuscaloosa.