Today I'm very pleased to offer a guest review of Nick Reding's Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town, by my friend Robert Brown. This is partly because I am lazy today, and I'm really not sure what to say about this book. But it is primarily because Robert has written a better review than I ever could. Somebody please give Robert a job reviewing books, would you? I have his contact information. Here goes:
Reding follows the trail of meth's slow, steady spread throughout the country, interviewing politicians, scientists, federal agents, police, and a meth-head or two to get at the truth. What he uncovers is disturbing and bleak. What he attempts to do is to use meth as a tool for understanding the plight of the individual during our current globalized society. Most of the book is given to analysis of the agricultural upheavals of the last quarter century and the decline of organized labor in a distributed labor market. Reding also covers the effects of the pharmaceutical industry's lobbying of the US congress, and courageously opens the immigration can of worms. This gives the book a larger frame, but compromises its depth.
I bought this book because I've been wondering about what meth has been up to the last year or so. I haven't heard much about it, and that makes me nervous. I remember when speed was just a joke, and I hoped for a clearer understanding of how uppers became crank. I now have that understanding, and I'm not sure I'm better off with it.
Methland is not a light read, nor an uplifting one. Reding tries to end on a high note, stressing the small-scale success of the mayor of the town of Oelwein Iowa and his allies in rehabilitating both the material circumstances of the town, and the collective spirit of the townspeople. He shows how one meth addict is trying against his own will to be a good father and stay clean.
The overwhelming feeling engendered by the book, however, is one of weary resignation. Meth is here, and it isn't going away, and the people who now control the supply and delivery of the drug are unpleasant. Things are probably going to get worse: third-world worse.
Part of the reason Reding's attempt to ameliorate the dread his investigation induces fails is that he doesn't believe it himself. His interpretation of events speaks volumes about his own convictions regarding the future, and I happen to find his interpretation and his convictions convincing. The other reason is because Reding's research seems spotty, or perhaps most of his research didn't find its way into the book. He didn't dig as hard as he could have, perhaps. Where are the interviews with a variety of addicts, or regular citizens? How does meth affect the "heartland?" What is the "heartland?" Who are all these people? Reding provides a few perspectives, but not a wide enough spectrum to make an impression.
Methland is an informative book, but it is too brief and too shallow a study to provide anything definitive or lasting. The people we meet are interesting, but we don't meet enough people. The anecdotes and interviews and studies are compelling, and the book is full of insight, some of it all too plausible. But it seems haphazardly organized, and rushed from initial material through final draft. Still, I recommend the book to anyone who wants to understand how uppers became crank."
Thank you, Robert. Actually, reading his review made me re-evaluate this book; more on that tomorrow.