Nick Reding. Methland: The Life and Death of an American Small Town. New York: Bloomsbury Books, 2009
Reviewed by T. Hatch
Nick Reding's Methland is loosely organized, inattentive to detail, and yet still persuasive in its main argument. The subject of the book is how a small town in Iowa (Oelwein) is ravaged by the epidemic of crystal methamphetamine use starting in the late 1980s. The social costs were staggering.
In its modern incantation methamphetamine appeared in Oelwein in the 1980s. But the problems associated with the drug really became manifest in the 1990s. The meat packing industry which formerly employed around eight hundred people at wages of up to $18 per hour in 1990, through a ruthless process of consolidation, cut wages by two-thirds to a little over $6 an hour. In addition to the wage reductions jobs were lost as well until the last owner of the plant,Tyson Foods, finally closed down entirely in 2006 laying off the last hundred or so mainly undocumented immigrants still employed there.
Reding argues that the twin rails of the town's demise were the savagery of agribusiness' consolidation techniques and the concomitant spread of crystal meth which became both more potent and less expensive as the town took an economic nosedive. While the story of Oelwein's woes needs context, Reding wanders all over the state and country, e.g. the chapter on his father's hometown of Algona, which detracts from the focus of the story. In fact the chapters dealing with Lori Kaye Arnold (the actor/comedian's sister) and the city of Ottumwa are in many ways more compelling.
There are a number of details in the book which are empircally wrong. The mayor of Oelwein is fifty-five years old at the time of the book's writing yet Reding has him organizing a grocery store union in Dubuque in 1959 when the future mayor is fourteen years old (pp.123-124). Oelwein is not northeast of Iowa City it is northwest (p.145). Lori Arnold allegedly has no access to workers compensation while employed at Cargill-Excel in Ottumwa. There are a limited number of exemptions to the workers compensation law in Iowa. One has to work in agriculture, be self-insured, or an independent contractor not to be covered (p.151). How exactly is Ecuador a “rogue” state? (p.209). And, there are yet more examples of literary sloth throughout the book with which I shall not continue to bore the reader.
Yet despite these deficiencies the book is worth reading. It would also make a great gift for the drug- using-middle-age- Iowan on your holiday shopping list.
Burling Library 2nd floor HV5831.I8 R43 2009