From the Worthington (MN) Daily Globe

Meth-odology: Author with area connections delves into rural epidemic

Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe

OELWEIN, Iowa — Nick Reding’s book is filled with colorful characters: an addict who blows up his mother’s house; a doctor battling his own demons while he tries to save his patients; a mayor determined to revitalize his deteriorating town; a former gang member struggling to overcome his drug habit; even the sister of a famous comedian who reigns over a drug empire.

But Reding didn’t write a fictional novel. “Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town,” is based on four years of research and interviews with the residents of Oelwein, population 6,126, located in northeast Iowa. And the problems that are de-tailed in the book — not just the use of crystal methamphetamine but the economic, cultural, political and social problems that Reding realizes are interconnected with the use of that drug — are all too real.

“When I first started out, I had the idea that I would write a book about a small town with a meth problem, as opposed to writing a book about meth,” Reding explained during a recent phone interview. “I sort of set out to figure out what was going on and was sort of surprised by where it went.”

A resident of St. Louis, Mo., who spent a decade in New York City before returning to his home, Reding has connections to both Iowa — his dad grew up in Algona — and to Worthington — he is the nephew of Jan and Russ Rickers, the son of Jan’s brother. By the time he paid his first visit to Oelwein, he’d been observing the rise of meth, particularly in rural areas, since 1999. As he traveled for various writing assignments, he noticed the drug’s expanding influence.

“I really wanted to write this book, and for a long time, I had a very hard time selling it,” Reding recalled. “In fact, my first agent wouldn’t even try to sell the proposal I had written. Her exact words were, ‘Nobody knows what meth is, and nobody cares about small town America.’ That was back in 2001. I wanted to sell the book, because, first, it did keep coming up everywhere I went. No. 2, I thought it was a good story.”

In the face of those rejections, Reding put the concept on the back burner for a while, but his interest was rekindled upon when coming face to face with two meth addicts — from very diverse backgrounds — at a bar during a hunting trip.

“Meeting those two guys really changed it for me,” Reding said, “from, ‘Wow, this is a good story,’ to — I don’t like the term moral obligation, but that is what it really felt like.”

As a result of his initial research and some happenstance, Oelwein became the focus of the book.

“By 2005, many law enforcement officers were being quoted in newspapers predicting that the state of Iowa would soon take over from my native Missouri as the leading producer of so-called mom-and-pop methamphetamine in the United States,” writes Reding in the book’s prologue. “For this reason … I’d been focusing my research on the state from which half my family comes, and which seemed poised to become the newest meth capital of America. One day, while poring over archived newspaper articles in The Des Moines Register, I came across an interesting quote made by a doctor in the northeast part of the state. I called the doctor one after-noon from my apartment in New York City. We talked for an hour and a half, during which the doctor began to change my thinking about meth as a crime story to one that has much more pervasive and far-reaching implications. What struck me most was his description of meth as ‘a sociocultural cancer.’”

That doctor, Clay Hallberg, lived in Oelwein. And soon Reding found himself en route to the community, the first of many visits over the next few years. Hallberg became one of the central characters in “Methland,” along with Nathan Lein, an Oelwein native who returned home to take the job of assistant county prosecutor, a job that entails prosecuting countless meth-related cases.

Then there’s Roland Jarvis, the meth addict and cook who, in his drugged paranoia, blew up his mother’s house in the winter of 2001.

“A divorced 35-year-old father of four who’d been making meth since the mid-1990s and using the drug since he was 16, Jarvis had been in jail all but three of the last 10 years. He did not want to go back,” Reding relates about the incident. “So bottle by bottle and container by container, he poured down the floor drain in the floor of his mother’s basement the chemicals he had stored there: anhydrous ammonia, Coleman lantern fluid, denatured alcohol and kerosene. Finally, he poured two gallons of hydrochloric acid down the drain. Then he lit a cigarette.”

The resulting explosion almost burned Jarvis alive, incinerating his fingers and his nose as well as melting the skin off his body.

Although she isn’t from Oelwein — instead hails from Ottumwa to the south — Reding also got to know Lori Arnold, sister of co-median Tom Arnold, through a correspondence while she was incarcerated in federal prison. In the late 1980s, Arnold ran a meth-making and distribution empire in Iowa.

“She was, she says, one of the main employers in Ottumwa, and a benevolent one, at that,” Reding writes. “She donated plenty of money to the local police and to the county sheriff. She planned to open a day care center and video game arcade next to the Wild Side, so local kids would have somewhere to go while their parents were in the bar. Together, Lori and meth were an antidote to the small-town sense of isolation, the collective sense of depression and low morale that had settled on Ottumwa since most farms went belly-up, the railroad closed, and the boys at the meatpacking plant lost their jobs.”

There are a lot more stories that Reding shares in “Methland” that drive home the point that meth is a real problem in the heart-land of America and one that is intertwined with other problems, including the consolidation of agricultural industries and immi-gration. Although he initially had a hard time generating interest in the book’s premise, it has done well since publication in June, debuting at No. 22 on The New York Times nonfiction best-sellers list in July. It has been reviewed favorably in major newspapers and magazines around the country.

In Oelwein, however, not everyone is a fan. Some residents claim that Reding sensationalized their community’s meth problem. And even though he details the community’s tactics toward revitalization of the town, some say the book has hampered those ef-forts.

“I actually went to Oelwein on July 20 to have sort of a town hall meeting to address this whole thing,” Reding said during the phone interview. “We had planned to do that a long time before the book came out. It was only fair that people get to tell me to my face what they think. In some ways, the town is the principle character. I think the reception was pretty harsh, but by the time the three hours was done of them asking questions, I think it turned out really well. I haven’t gotten any more death threats.”

During the course of his research, Reding developed strong friendships with both Hallberg and Lein and continues to talk with both men on a regular basis. Another “benefit” that came out of the book was a pilgrimage to his dad’s hometown of Algona.

“That was honestly on the top of the list of the best things to come out of this book was to go to Dad and Aunt Jan’s hometown for the first time,” said Reding, who hadn’t been there since he was a lad too young to remember. “It was the perfect opportunity and one of the coolest days I have spent doing anything in my whole life.”

Reding said “Methland” had generated politicized reviews on both sides of the spectrum, but he didn’t start out with any agenda except trying to expose the meth epidemic that exists across the country, its causes and implications.

“I think my No. 1 hope would be that people understand that it’s just a symptom of a much larger reality, that in many ways, eco-nomically and socially and culturally and politically, there are some really major problems in the United States, and a lot of them begin and end with the way we treat our own people in terms of how we pay them and what we pay them and for what we pay them,” he said. “I always hope that people would understand it is not morally or ethically acceptable for some businesses to operate in the manner in which they do. Meth is really an excuse to see that. That’s what I would hope.”

Google Analytics integration offered by Wordpress Google Analytics Plugin