Whenever I’m feeling a bit frustrated with one of my own vices, I like to read about drugs. Now, before you get all high (pun intended) and mighty, I’m not saying it’s an ideal personality trait to be comforted by the struggles of others, but hey, the entire reality television genre is predicated on this kind of schadenfreude.
In a way, what appeals to me about the genre is that drug addiction is an equal-opportunity affliction. Certainly, upbringing and socioeconomic status all play a role in one’s predilection, or lack thereof, for addiction – but at the end of the day, anyone can be an addict. The problem transcends generations, geography and politics (to the extent that anything can).
So I had been looking forward to Nick Reding’s Methland, which I bought after reading Beautiful Boy, a father’s memoir about his son’s addiction to methamphetamine. Here is a drug with which I have no personal experience but, for all intents and purposes, is one of the worst, one of the addictions from which few recover. While Beautiful Boy focused on one family’s experience, Methland promised a broader overview: How it’s produced, where, by whom, and most importantly, the scale of the meth problem and the severity of its fallout.
Reding makes clear from the beginning his intention with Methland: to illustrate not only meth’s effect on its addicts or their families, but its broader repercussions in small towns across America, where meth addiction and production is rampant. These towns, in which conglomerates have taken over the majority of industry No. 1, farming/food production–transforming dependable factory work into low-wage, benefit-free drudgery–are hard pressed to offer their residents a viable financial alternative to producing and selling meth (much like the U.S. has struggled to give farmers in Colombia a more profitable crop to grow than cocaine) and harder pressed to offer a quality of life that doesn’t beg for frequent pick-me-ups. These are towns without the scale necessary to absorb drug addicts–whose presence weighs on residents more heavily than in a large city–or the resources to develop adequate treatment options for those suffering from addiction. Long story short, these towns are SOL.
And that’s just it – when it comes to Methland, long story short would have been enough. Reding has clearly put in the work–he spent years researching the book and paying visits to the town and people about whom he’s writing–but as a result seems bogged down in his own experience, with minimal consideration as to which parts of it are relevant for readers. A magazine writer by trade, Reding gets lost in description; an older woman is described: “Seen through a pall of cigarette smoke, backlit by the rays of sun pouring through the kitchen window, with her greasy black hair worn back off her steep, leather-brown face, she looks like a nineteenth-century Apache in a sepia-tone portrait.” And she’s not even one of his main subjects. Entire pages are devoted to their back stories, regardless of whether they’re relevant to the topic at hand.
In a way, I imagine this was Reding’s goal. He says multiple times in Methland that this is a drug America overlooks, just as we consider the part of the country most afflicted by meth as the “flyover zone.” It’s very easy to dismiss meth as a problem for rural towns; by painting portraits of real people grappling with the drug’s effects every day, Reding hopes to humanize the topic. Unfortunately, his attention to detail accomplishes the opposite. The more Reding writes about his subjects, the less I could relate to them. After all, I didn’t grow up in the midwest, I don’t farm, and I truly hope that my Saturday night plans never involve a venue called “The Do Drop Inn.” So while I agree that straight statistics–1 in 10 people is addicted to meth, for example (a number I made up just now)–can be steeped in shock value, this is America: only shock value gets through.
Moreover, much of Methland isn’t about meth at all, so much as the economic environment in small towns that has contributed to meth’s growing popularity, particularly as a means of paying the bills. The acquisition of small farming businesses by the nation’s agriculture giants–ConAgra, Cargill, Hormel, etc.–has taken an enormous toll on middle America: factories, often the towns’ largest employers, are moved or shut down; jobs are handed over to illegal immigrants, who will work for next to nothing; farmers are forced to accept the pricing terms of whichever company has exclusively contracted them. All of this leads to meth, as downtrodden residents use it to feel better and/or sell it to make ends meet. But Reding ultimately spends a lot of time on farming, so much so that I think he might have been better off writing a book about that instead.
Now, the kind of book I was expecting to read, one ostensibly about meth, does show up from time to time in Methland. And when it does–in a description of one addict’s hallucinations, or in a scientific outline of how meth works on the brain–it’s fascinating and heartbreaking. One addict at the time of his interview with Reding is still smoking meth, despite having lost both his hands to this home meth lab explosion (warning: not for the faint of heart):
“Jarvis looked down and saw what he thought was egg white on his bare arms. It was not egg white; it was the viscous state of his skin now that the water had boiled out of it. Jarvis flung it off himself, and then he saw that where the egg white had been he could now see roasting muscle. He looked at his legs and abdomen. His skin was dripping off his body in sheets. Panicked, standing there in the frigid night outside the inferno of his mother’s home, naked but for his boxer shorts, which he’d inadvertently soaked in water while fighting the fire, Roland Jarvis began pushing sheets of skin from himself, using his hands like blunt tools, wiping and shoving the hide from as much of his body as he could reach. He’d have pulled the melting skeins of skin from himself in bigger, more efficient sections, but for the fact that his fingers had burned off of his hands. His nose was all but gone now, too, and he ran back and forth among the gathered neighbors, unable to scream, for his esophagus and his voice box had cooked inside his throat.”
Like I said, shock value gets through. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t appreciate Reding’s passages on the history of meth, the science behind the drug, the specific efforts of one small town or the generally meth-friendly status of economics in rural America. Rather, what the book definitely had in breadth, it as a result lacked in cohesion.
Against all odds, Methland managed to be at times downright boring (aforementioned passage notwithstanding). I understand what Reding was trying to do: focus on the underpinnings of meth, as opposed to its direct and immediate effects. After all, we’re so desensitized to addiction, so capable of dismissing as weak-minded addicts who refuse to help themselves, that perhaps there is merit in looking at a drug from an economic standpoint, as something that takes a toll on everyone, if only indirectly, and therefore cannot be dismissed as “not my problem.”
Ultimately however, it was the scope of Reding’s research that doomed the book for me. In fewer than 300 pages, one can’t effectively cover the science, history and economics behind meth and still have room for multiple-page anecdotes, or a prolonged exploration of the state of rural factory jobs. Reding would have benefited greatly from some focus, and possibly some distance from his own experiences in Oelwein (the Iowa town where most of the book is centered). After all, as the root problems behind meth compound–among them Oelwein’s at least semi-apathetic population, some of whom condemn the local police chief’s attempts to rein in meth production–it’s hard not to feel like the whole thing is hopeless. Addicts who don’t want to be helped, non-addicts who don’t want to help them, a declining local economy presided over by faceless conglomerates … who wouldn’t look at Oelwein and think, “not my problem.” Ultimately I feel I learned more about the drug from Beautiful Boy, but that’s because the first and most fascinating answer to why people do drugs is inevitably, “to get high.” Methland makes a valiant effort to track down the second and third answers, but falls flat doing so.
AUTHOR: Nick Reding
PAGES: 269 (in paperback)
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SORTA LIKE: Beautiful Boy meets Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography
FIRST LINE: “As you look down after takeoff from O’Hare International Airport, headed west for San Francisco, California, it’s only a few minutes before the intricate complexity of Chicago’s suburban streets is overcome by the rolling swell of the prairie.”