Rural US through lens of tik
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