Ru­ral US through lens of tik

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE - AMY LORENTZEN

DES MOINES, Iowa: Nick Red­ing, the au­thor of a well-re­ceived book about metham­phetamine’s (tik) grip on a small town, be­lieves the drug is “only a symp­tom of a larger eco­nomic and ul­ti­mately po­lit­i­cal prob­lem”.

“That prob­lem is es­sen­tially that peo­ple can’t make money any­more to do the jobs that have kept places in the mid­dle of the coun­try go­ing for a cen­tury,” he says dur­ing a tele­phone in­ter­view from his St Louis home.

The drug “just sort of moves into the vacuum” as peo­ple strug­gle to earn a liv­ing now that farm and fac­tory jobs have evap­o­rated with the con­sol­i­da­tion of the agri­cul­ture in­dus­try, he says.

In Meth­land: The Death and Life of an Amer­i­can Small Town, Red­ing cites the case of Oel­wein, Iowa (pop­u­la­tion: 6 100) – but he stresses that the same story is un­fold­ing in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties through­out the na­tion. The book has earned strong re­views and is draw­ing na­tional at­ten­tion to the is­sues be­hind metham­phetamine’s sta­tus as the heart­land’s drug of choice.

“Meth doesn’t cause the prob­lems faced by Oel­wein ... econ­omy does, and meth is just the lens through which to see that,” Red­ing says.

The idea for the book came af­ter vis­its back to his home state of Mis­souri and other Mid­west­ern states in the late 1990s. At first, he was able to com­part­men­talise metham­phetamine “into some­body else’s prob­lem, some­body else’s part of Amer­ica”. But he fi­nally had to ac­knowl­edge that it was ev­ery­where in ru­ral Amer­ica.

“Small towns are not the places of so­cial and cul­tural and eco­nomic health­i­ness and well-be­ing that I was raised to think they are,” Red­ing says. “To mis­rep­re­sent it as only meth is the prob­lem, or to mis­rep­re­sent it even more hor­ri­bly and say there is no prob­lem – that’s kind of hope­less then,” he says. “When things are not well in ru­ral Amer­ica, where 20 mil­lion peo­ple still live, then it’s an in­di­ca­tion that things are not well all over.”

Red­ing ini­tially had a tough time gen­er­at­ing in­ter­est for the book, and it took him three at­tempts to fi­nally get a pub­lisher to buy it. Now pub­lisher Blooms­bury says 40 000 copies of Meth­land are in print. It de­buted at No 22 on The New York Times non­fic­tion best-sell­ers list on July 26 and was No 30 on the lat­est list.

But while Red­ing’s book gets na­tional at­ten­tion, some res­i­dents of Oel­wein are crit­i­cis­ing it. They say it sen­sa­tion­alises sto­ries, such as the one about a man who Red­ing says es­sen­tially melted his face and cooked his oe­soph­a­gus in an ex­plo­sion af­ter he poured metham­phetamine-mak­ing chem­i­cals down a drain and then lit a cig­a­rette.

Oth­ers say the book doesn’t do enough to show how the com­mu­nity has con­fronted its eco­nomic prob­lems by bring­ing in new busi­nesses and re­vamp­ing the down­town area.

“He is right as far as the prob­lem of meth is con­cerned, but that’s the only thing I’ll give him credit for,” says 60-year-old Kathy Adams, an Oel­wein res­i­dent. “I just feel like it didn’t do jus­tice to Oel­wein.”

Sally Falb, di­rec­tor of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment at the Oel­wein Cham­ber and Area De­vel­op­ment group, says: “Some­thing like this comes along and they feel it puts a dam­per on our hard work.”

Red­ing says he un­der­stands their com­ments, but af­ter re­port­ing on the town for nearly four years, he has no qualms main­tain­ing that Oel­wein’s econ­omy and cul­ture now are tied more closely to metham­phetamine than to its long-time an­chors of farm­ing and small busi­ness. While many other towns share the same prob­lems, Red­ing says he had to fo­cus on one com­mu­nity, and he chose Oel­wein.

“It’s not to say that Oel­wein is the only place or the worst place, but it’s just a place where the stuff that I wanted to talk about is all rel­e­vant and ap­par­ent,” Red­ing says.

And some peo­ple in Oel­wein say Red­ing has it right. Among them is Clay Hall­berg, a lo­cal physi­cian and cen­tral fig­ure in the book. He says some peo­ple don’t want to talk about the area’s metham­phetamine prob­lem. Ul­ti­mately, Hall­berg says, it’s more im­por­tant to deal with the drug’s vic­tims and the town’s prob­lems.

Since the book’s pub­li­ca­tion, Red­ing has re­turned to Oel­wein and faced scep­ti­cis and some hos­til­ity. But that won’t change his feel­ing for the town and its peo­ple. “You can’t write 270 pages of an in­ti­mate por­trait of a place un­less you like it, un­less you have re­spect for the peo­ple there,” he said.– Sapa-AP

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