The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding

by James Williams

11 January 2010

cover art

Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town

Nick Reding

(Bloomsbury USA)
US: Jun 2009

Toward the end of Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town Nick Reding concedes that the book might seem less relevant today than even a few years ago. After all, the manufacturing and sale of methamphetamine derived from over-the-counter cold medicines—popularly known as “crystal meth”—is hardly the subject of widespread and, Reding argues at times nearly hysterical, media coverage that it was in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.

Further, in 2006 Congress passed the Combat Meth Act intended to restrict individuals’ ability to buy in large quantities cold medicines and other products used in the production of meth, signaling, according to legislators and officials in the Drug Enforcement Administration, firm determination to severely curtail the making, trafficking, and use of the drug. This apparent victory over meth—this seeming triumph in at least one theater of the United States’ ongoing war on drugs—is however just that, Reding suggests, an apparent victory. Reding ends his study of the effects of meth production, distribution, and abuse in the small farming town of Oelwein, Iowa with the grim suggestion that meth is still, and will continue to be, a serious problem whatever claims to the contrary government and law-enforcement officials might make.

This is so because meth production and use are deeply interwoven with economic and political trends that are stripping rural America of its historic significance and purpose. Quite simply, rural America and the small farm agricultural economy that characterized so much of it no longer matter much anymore. As Reding writes in his prologue: “If ever there was a chance to see the place of the small American town in the era of the global economy, the meth epidemic is it”. In other words, in the account that Methland presents meth is not so much what is devastating rural communities as the “symptom” of a devastation that has already been wrought by “Big Pharmaceuticals, Big Agriculture, and modern Mexican drug-trafficking business”.

At the same time, the popular prejudice that meth abuse is a problem caused by trailer-dwelling hillbillies and redneck bandits prevents Americans from taking a hard look at its national and international causes—among them corporate lobbying that restricts any real limitations on the sale of cold medicine, government support of agri-business corporations whose products and practices are driving the family farm out of existence, and the indifference that allowed international drug cartels to establish the widespread presence of meth in the United States.

Reding’s diagnosis of the historical circumstances that have allowed meth to flourish is generally convincing but the real significance of Methland lies in its examination of how meth has affected the lives of the residents of Oelwein—both those who use and produce the drug and those who seek to eradicate it. As to the first group, without passing over the physical and psychological horrors that meth use can and more often than does visit upon those who use it, Reding takes very seriously the reasons that individuals might consume, produce, or distribute the drug. Those reasons vary, and certainly greed and unscrupulous ambition play their part. But perhaps foremost is a sense of hopelessness and futility born of limited economic opportunity as farming and manufacturing become less and less viable means to make a living. This sense is not likely to disappear anytime soon.

As to Reding’s other cast of characters—the police officers and attorneys and doctors who have seen their communities immeasurably damaged by the influx of meth—they are fighting a good fight, but one that they almost certainly will not win. Indeed, Methland is not so much a prescription for how the meth problem might be remedied as a lament for the slow death of rural America, a death whose causes are more complex than Americans are willing to acknowledge, just as they are unwilling to acknowledge the many complicities and betrayals—however so large or small, individual or national—that have lead to the dire fate of places like Oelwein.

If these places refuse to go gentle into obsolescence, if instead they present a sad and terrible pageant of human suffering and cruelty as they both struggle for a little more life and collude in their own destruction, we should ask, as Reding does with compassion and thoughtfulness, how much we can really blame them?

Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town


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