Think globally, suffer locally. This could be the moral of “Methland,” Nick Reding’s unnerving investigative account of two gruesome years in the life of Oelwein, Iowa, a railroad and meatpacking town of several thousand whipped by a methamphetamine-laced panic whose origins lie outside the place itself, in forces almost too great to comprehend and too pitiless to bear. The ravages of meth, or “crank,” on Oelwein and countless forsaken locales much like it are shown to be merely superficial symptoms of a vaster social dementia caused by, among other things, the iron dominion of corporate agriculture and the slow melting of villages and families into the worldwide financial stew.
The book, wrought from old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting of a type that’s disappearing faster than nonfranchised lunch counters on Main Street, isn’t chiefly a tale of drugs and crime, of dysfunction and despair, but a recession-era tragedy scaled for an “Our Town,” Thornton Wilder stage and seemingly based on a script by William S. Burroughs. The madness stalking tiny, defenseless Oelwein may eventually come for all of us, we learn, and once again, as happens in America whenever our collective attention wanders from the gray struggles of the little guy to the purple capers of the big wheels, attention must be paid. Right now. Or else.
“Methland” begins quietly and solemnly, with a ballad of cultural invisibility. Reding, a loyal native of the Midwest who’s frankly sentimental about its past and starkly lucid about its likely future, invites his rushing readers to gaze down at the “flyover country” of America and see not a grid of farms and county roads but a patchwork of failed institutions and aspirations. There’s the hospital, groaning under a load of uninsured patients with minimum-wage jobs and maxed-out household budgets. There’s the school, imperiled by dwindling tax receipts and students with ever more grown-up problems. And there, on a street in a district of drab houses not far from the faltering central business district, is a passel of latter-day Tom Sawyers on bikes, riding along not for the summertime heck of it but to shake up batches of low-grade speed contained in plastic soda jugs lashed to their back fenders.
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