From the Cleveland Plain Dealer

In many ways, the spread of meth through the heart of America feels like last year’s story. It’s something we’ve already tsk-tsked over and then moved past, especially once it seemed like the epidemic had ebbed after federal intervention – such as limiting customer access to over-the-counter cold and allergy drugs containing pseudoephedrine and ephedrine, meth’s basic ingredients.

But in his new book, “Methland,” journalist Nick Reding makes the case that the epidemic is still with us, as is the devastation it wrought in small-town America – particularly across the Midwest.

Reding could have focused on any of hundreds of small towns, but for family reasons – his father hailed from nearby – he settled on Oelwein, population about 6,000, in eastern Iowa, where globalization and farm conglomerations sucked the local economy all but dry. The personal connection feels forced, though, as if what had once been the book’s driving premise was abandoned for the more compelling stories of key players on either side of the meth divide.

Reding is vested in his characters in ways that he makes plain, both those he likes personally and those whose lives have crumbled under the weight of addiction. But his empathy doesn’t affect his vision. Heroes and villains are painted in full, including the ironic alcoholism of Dr. Clay Hallberg, who made it his mission to try to treat many of the people most affected by meth addiction.
And those stories are what make this such a powerful work of reportage.

Federal laws and enhanced local enforcement may have cut the number of people cooking up batches in the kitchen – or in special tanks as they ride bicycles around Oelwein – but that just means a shift in drug manufacturing. Reding argues that, much like the co-option of the family farm, cartels simply have corporatized the distribution.

But it’s the effects of the addiction, both on individuals and the community, that propel “Methland.”

Among the many small lives Reding explores is Roland Jarvis, a meth maker famous locally for blowing up his mother’s house in a 2001 explosion that also burned off his nose and most of his fingers. In his last foray to a favorite local bar, someone punched him to feel “what it was like to slug a man with no nose.”

“That,” Jarvis tells Reding, “kind of put a damper on my Saturday night fever.”

Yet Jarvis can’t stop smoking meth. When Reding visits him in 2005, the grotesquely scarred man lights up his pipe in his mother’s darkened living room just days before he – and his mother – are to report to prison on drug convictions.

Reding’s professional distance makes this book work. He’s hard on misguided government policies and inconsistent law enforcement, but otherwise leaves the moralizing out. The result is a clear-eyed look at a scourge that continues to afflict wide swaths of American society – whether we want to acknowledge it or not.


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