I don’t read much non-fiction. I’m perpetually caught up in the endless flood of new novels. But Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town caught my eye from the first time I saw it, in hardcover on a bookstore table a year or so ago. The American meth epidemic holds a certain morbid fascination for me—the disturbing photographs of dead-eyed addicts, the vague sense of a low-level apocalypse transpiring just out of sight, that time when the police did a raid of the trailer park across the street from an apartment my dad was renting in Oceano, California, and—rumor has it—found thirty-two meth labs in forty-odd trailers.
The scope of Methland is vast. Reding looks at every angle of the meth epidemic, from the political machinations affecting the sale of ephedrine to the Mexican drug cartels that move the drug across borders. The narrative focus of the book, however, is on a single small town: Oelwein, Iowa, population 6,126. That number alone offers a hint at the economic disasters that have convulsed the town—and countless other rural communities across this country—over the past few decades: in 1960, the town had a population of eight thousand. But three out of four farms in the county have gone out of business since then, the railway has left, and wages at the town’s meatpacking plant have plummeted; in 1992 the plant was bought by Gillette, and the union was dissolved overnight. Wages fell from $18 an hour plus benefits and stock in the company, to $6.20 an hour without health insurance and without the possibility of advancement. Entrepreneurial meth dealers moved into the economic vacuum.
Reding presents us with a perfect storm. Local farmers, struggling to stay in business and desperate to avoid foreclosure in an era of stagnant corn prices, aren’t necessarily above selling chemical fertilizer—a key ingredient in the type of meth being manufactured in Oelwein—to meth cooks. Workers at the meatpacking plant, struggling to survive on $6.20 an hour, need some means of staying awake to work suddenly necessary double shifts. In a town where half the storefronts are boarded up and eighty percent of kindergartners, according to Reding, qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, the appeal of a drug that fills its users with a sense of well-being isn’t incomprehensible.
This is a meticulously researched, quietly brilliant and unexpectedly moving account of a town’s descent, and of its struggle to pull itself back from the edge.