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Nonfiction: Darkness At The Edge Of Town

Nick Reding
Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town

Most writings about drugs or drug cultures are as puerile as their subject matter—sensationalistic or moralizing, effusive in condemnation but offering no solutions, limited in scope and—dare I say?—substance. Whether a casebook study of addiction, a memoir regaling in past pharmaceutical misbehavior, or grassroots or governmentally-mandated literature, treatments of the topic rarely address the range of problems, issues, and ideas relevant to contemporary drug use, drug users, and drug laws. Moreover, the message conveyed is habitually ridden with the Puritanical admonition against social behavior deemed pathological when, in fact, such behavior originates in conditions well beyond the noses, veins, and mouths of drug users. A troubling tactic of exposure and evasion of the topic is commonplace, just as the substance abuse of high school students continues under the aegis of “Drug Free” school zone signs: the symptoms of illness are highlighted and yet dodged.

Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town is an antidote to this misbegotten state of drug studies. Tracking the community of Oelwein, Iowa as it plummets into economic despair and methamphetamine abuse, this study serves as a crucible and warning of what happens when corporations exploit and then leave the regions where they do business. Reding writes powerfully about the succession of buy-outs and clampdowns that reduced union labor into shop-free tenancies of agribusiness autocracy. As wages fell and worker protection was stripped, residents of Oelwein turned to meth as a means to work extra shifts, taking on the side-effects of mild psychosis, domestic violence, and sexual deviance. When companies left, they left behind a population of drug addicts who fulfilled the circularity of drug addiction by succumbing to the routine of abuse, gradually dying out or becoming criminals, dealers, prostitutes, or thugs.

What ultimately distinguishes Reding’s book is the sensitivity he gives to the travails of the addicts he interviewed as well as the frustrated small town police officers and attorneys he spent time with trying to determine if Oelwein was a Midwestern anomaly or the shape of nationwide things to come. It turns out that this particular town is, sadly, not exceptional, and Reding effectively shows how the conditions in this specific place are general to many North American communities. His careful, meticulous tracking of regional histories, statistics, federal drug policies, and personalities on all sides of the law, reveal that the blight which destabilized Oelwein was long in coming and potentially coming soon to a town near you.

Reding is no morality propagandist—more of a Marxist sharpshooter—and his compassion for the subjects of his study is impressive. The writing is always rich in insight and, even when it veers of course (e.g., Reding’s recounting of his own family’s tangential relation to the subject), the prose engages, quickens, with an electric force and directness. Methland is a book of sociology, testament, and inquiry, wistfully wondering what consigned small town America to the hell of addiction, and how exactly we might rescue it.


Jon Curley

Poet and critic Jon Curley is a New Englander currently living in New Jersey.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2009

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