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Methland: Q and A with Nick Reding

Ulrich Boser 1

Is crystal meth the most dangerous drug in the world? Author Nick Reding believes so, and he develops an impressive case for his argument in his new book Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town.

Using a cast of fascinating characters from drug traffickers to the town doctor, Reding’s book tells the story of the tiny town of Oelwein, Iowa. Meth has ravaged the depressed town; no one, it seems, has been untouched. “Meth, it seemed, was just a part of life,” writes Reding in his prologue.

Reding’s account has received powerful reviews. “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,” writes the New York Times.

I emailed a few questions to author Nick Reding about the book. He answers them below:

How did you get interested in this story? 

I first got interested while reporting a totally unrelated story back in 1999 in a small town in Idaho. I actually ended up spending weeks in the town–which was completely overrun with meth for reasons I’d only understand years later, while writing Methland–and following several peoples’ lives: the same thing I eventually did in Oelwein. Part of the problem with that iteration of the story is that the sheriff’s brother was a major dealer in town, as was a member of a very prominent ranching family with ties to Idaho politics. One night, the sheriff’s brother, who was a major tweaker, followed me into the men’s room of a local bar and said he was going to kill me unless I quit reporting the story. That’s when I started looking for a new town, and eventually ended up in Oelwein.

Why is it important?

I think writing about meth is important because the drug’s rise is tied directly to a much larger series of economic, social, and political issues which, taken together, account for the incredible decline of fortunes in much of the middle of the United States. Basically, meth let’s us know that the part of the United States we thought was okay, isn’t.

Can you tell me more about the book’s heros?

The book follows four years in the life of the town of Oelwein, seen principally through the eyes of the town doctor, the assistant county prosecutor, and the mayor. It also follows the lives of a long-term addict, a recovering addict, and a major trafficker. I’d consider the doctor and the prosecutor the heroes in narrative terms, because they’re the book’s conscience. They’re stories are similar insofar as they got out of town–one went to law school, the other to med school–only to return in order to help their hometown. What they could never have predicted was deeply-ingrained this drug would become, or how much of a toll it would take on them. How they deal with it is a lot of the story.

What does the story of the town say about drug policy in the US?

What it says is that it doesn’t work because it misses the point. Drugs here are about economy and politics. For instance, that legislation designed to give Big Ag enormous breaks in fact makes drug distribution easier in two ways: one, it sucks revenue out of towns that become major trans-shipment points; two, it draws more illegal immigrants, who traffickers use as mules. That’s just one small example of the interrelation of things, and of how treating drugs as though they exist in a vacuum free from the influence of politics, economics, and sociology is essentially useless. I’ll have a chance to say some of that, I hope, next week, when I’ve been asked to have breakfast with the Drug Czar.

I loved the details like you holding onto a whiskey tumbler, thinking it might protect you. Or at least that you could use it to claw a character’s eye out. Can you tell me more about your reporting and research?

Having spent a year living with a family of gauchos, or semi-nomadic cowboys in Patagonia, plus ten years off and on with meth addicts and traffickers, I’m not entirely unused to uncomfortable situations. One of the principal characters in my first book, The Last Cowboys at the End of the World, was a cattle thief who, when I met him, was on the run from having bludgeoned to death a policeman, a crime for which he was eventually caught. Without incriminating myself for anything I have or haven’t done, all I’ll say is that it’s easier to break someone’s eye socket with a whisky tumbler than with a fist.

Which, in reality, has had almost nothing to do with my reporting. It’s only very, very rarely that I’ve had any trouble with anyone, for the reason that I only write about people that I like. I spend weeks and weeks talking to people before I settle on characters, and months with those people once I start reporting. So I wouldn’t know how to do that unless I liked them. Once you accept that, hanging around with a meth addict isn’t that different from hanging around with the doctor or the prosecutor.

Have you heard from the folks in Oelwein? What has been their reaction to the book?

The thing I’m most proud of with this book is that all the principal characters have said both publicly and privately that the book is right on. Clay Hallberg even went so far as to say that he’d learned things about his hometown he never knew, and saw himself in a new light, as well. I couldn’t ask for anything more than that–and believe me, when I sent them all copies of the book, I was really nervous. After all, I don’t think there’s anything harder than having someone write about you; they’ll never get it right, which is to say, I’ll never say it like they would have said it. It takes incredible courage to be the subject of a book like this, and incredible dignity to be okay with it–never mind the attention it has brought them–once the book is out.

And finally what do you think the future is for a town like Oelwein?

I think Oelwein will be okay. It has only improved since the book went to the printer, adding another 400 high-paying manufacturing jobs. But part of that is that they’ve pushed meth out of Oelwein and into other towns in the county. Meth hasn’t gone away, it’s just gone somewhere else down the road (literally) just as poor as Oelwein was. Until we can account for the poverty, we won’t account for the meth. Period.


This item originally appeared in The Open Case magazine.

  1. Rupesh Rupesh

    It always seems to shock polpee, when I explain where meth is usually made. I think polpee tend to think about meth labs as an urban phenom, when the reality is that very little meth is produced outside of rural areas. There were a lot of meth producers who set up trailers in the woods, in Allegan county (about half way between Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, MI). I think it was 98′ when the MI state police, in conjunction with the Allegan and Kalamazoo county sheriffs departments busted 26 such labs in two weeks – every one of them more than thirty miles from the nearest (reasonable) municipality. The problem with meth, is that it is too damned easy to make – and profitable. Back before ephadrine was outlawed, apparently some meth cookers were growing their own ephedra because it was safer than buying pseudoephedrine in the necessary quantities. I can’t imagine making it illegal has stopped them.

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