By Nick Reding
Reviewed by Bill Kauffman
Published in the Wall Street Journal on June 9, 2009
Oelwein, Iowa, pronounced “Ol Wine,” is a small city of about 6,700 souls in northeast Iowa that Jay Leno reportedly once called “possibly the worst place in the world.” There are those who love it, though, and the effort of these faithful Oelweiners to revive their methamphetamine-dazed town is the subject of Nick Reding’s “Methland.”
Mr. Reding, a Missouri-bred New York City journalist, traveled to Oelwein between May 2005 and early 2008 “searching for the meaning of meth in small-town America.” Oelwein was bedeviled by this drug, which is often associated with poor and working-class rural whites.
Among meth’s nasty side effects is “a sense that a person is literally falling apart from the inside out,” and exactly that, Mr. Reding suggests, was happening to Oelwein. The town was collapsing into a white-trash heap of “Beavis and Butthead cooks” stealing Sudafed and rendering it into brain-warping crank in their basement labs.
It is not possible for an outsider to really know a place; he can only describe its visible parts, so the strength of “Methland” lies not in what I suspect is a lopsided portrait of a town but rather in its character studies. The cast includes: Clay Hallberg, the town’s general practitioner, a returned prodigal son and maker of house calls; Nathan Lein, 6-foot-9 farm boy and assistant Fayette County prosecutor, who financed his graduate education by “working as a bouncer in an all-black strip club” in Gary, In., and who, like many rural DA’s, seldom eats out because he is “constantly running into people he’s prosecuted”; and Mayor Larry Murphy, a pro-life liberal Democrat — a common type in Middle America.
One of the most perplexing figures in “Methland” is Jeremy Logan, the chief of police, whose aggressive methods of enforcement raise — and shred — civil liberties flags but shut down the meth houses.
He orders his 10-man force to “pull over cars for almost any reason” — dirty license plate, exceeding the speed limit by five miles per hour — and search for drugs. “Assume everyone is guilty, and put the screws to them” is how Mr. Reding explains the policy. As Mr. Reding perceptively notes, Chief Logan’s acts “defied the very foundations of life in a small town, where people’s familiarity with one another means everything.”
There is also the pathetic dope fiend Roland Jarvis, who “melted most of his hands and face off” when a batch of meth he was cooking blew up. Afire, Mr. Jarvis staggered into the street, pleading with Chief Logan, his former classmate, to put him out of his misery. (He did not; the misery continues, unabated.)
Roland Jarvis is a hopeless case, a melting man whom no intervention can save from himself. Self-conscious about the “open, pussing sores” marking his body, he lives in a lurid cloister, watching TV and smoking meth and waiting around to die.
“Oelwein, with its familiar and often complex social circuitry, is much like a family,” writes Mr. Reding. Dr. Hallberg has delivered some of the town’s meth-heads; he has treated their parents; he has seen their grandparents die. This is a community, however frayed and betrayed, and in the ligature of community, Mr. Reding suggests, is the possibility of renewal.
Oelwein, in short, is not the worst place on earth, no matter what a comedian might say; it is, to its citizens, home and as such worthy of love. Certain anti-meth methods might seem wrong-headed to us: Mayor Murphy and Chief Logan try to outlaw bicycle riding on Main Street because some small-time meth makers strap a bottle to their bikes and pedal away as they cook the stuff in the belief that the motion will “diffuse the smell of the process.” But we don’t live there so who are we to judge?
Mr. Reding is less compelling when he tries to tell us What It All Means. He is surely right that the mass transfer of Iowa farmland from families to absentee corporations has eroded the civil and social life of places like Oelwein, and the illegal immigrants who toil in Iowa’s meatpacking plants probably do make effective drug couriers, as he argues.
It is harder to buy his morality play pitting the white hats of the Drug Enforcement Administration against evil “pharmaceutical industry lobbyists,” who resist federal regulation of the sale of cold medicines and the import of ephedrine power (which is used to make both nasal decongestants and meth). From the DEA to Mayor Murphy’s prize industrial park, government solutions to Oelwein’s problems win Mr. Reding’s too-ready assent.
As a “social problem” meth is dull and intractable, as are all such problems; reduced, or rather elevated, to the individual level, it is piercing and poignant, as for instance when a “self-loathing” ex-doper is tormented by the thought that his son might pay the neurological price of the father’s mistakes.
Mr. Reding’s heart is in the right place, even if one wonders how much of the town a native Oelweiner might see in his book. The ending of “Methland” is too neat: By Christmas 2006, “Methlehem” (Oelwein’s undivine nickname) is rejuvenating and local meth production has “all but ceased to be an issue.”
The author supplies a more convincing personal happy ending. His visits to Oelwein kindle in Mr. Reding a new affection for his own place, and so he and his wife have moved home. I hope his next book is about St. Louis.