This land is ‘Methland’

Pub date August 19, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature

DRUG LIT Books claiming to be about drugs in some way — whether nominally fiction or nonfiction — all run up against the same problem: pharmacodependency is already culture. Or, as the literary theorist and academic Avital Ronell puts it in her brilliant, uncategorizable tract, Crack Wars (University of Illinois Press, 1993), drugs articulate "a quiver between history and ontology."

Put another way, drugs aren’t everything, but rituals of self-maintenance and care, from vitamins to exercise and so on, are built on addictive structures. Isoutf8g a drug as a singularity — as Nick Reding only apparently does in Methland (Bloomsbury USA, 272 pages, $24.95), a sort of informal case study of the effects and causes of the meth epidemic in the Iowa town of Oelwein — is a dicey proposition. It calls for a kind of Puritan monomania that might capture some of the lucidity of being on drugs but does so at the price of insight, a deductive rather than inductive logic.

It’s easy to claim that drugs are culture if we limit ourselves to the black-light poster canon of drug lit from Baudelaire’s Les Paradis Artificiels (1860) to Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959) and Bret Easton Ellis’ coke-benumbed Less Than Zero (1985). In their time, those books appeared as threatening as their subject matter because they revealed associations between addiction and literature — a notion that seems rather quaint now. Nobody’s launching hysterical campaigns against toxic literature. Today, video games are the new objects of moral panic. Perhaps as books quietly got subsumed into the category of self-improvement, video games took on the cast of a potentially ruinous pursuit of unproductive labor.

In this context, meth is an oddly positioned drug: since its first large-scale use among soldiers on both sides during World War II, speed has been associated with hard work, endurance, and elevated mood over more abstract qualities. Whether prescribed for slimming down or perking up during its brief tenure as a licit drug, amphetamines have always tended to banal, everyday worry. As Reding writes in his book’s introduction, the U.S. meth epidemic is set apart not only because meth can be synthesized cheaply and discreetly at home, but because the drug’s main constituency is working-class, rural whites. Reding’s take on his subjects is compassionate but not treacly: a significant portion of the book links increased meth use with the effects of globalization upon the blue-collar job markets in small towns.

One of the Oelwein residents Reding profiles, a notorious crank addict named Roland Jarvis, went from earning $18 an hour with full union membership and benefits to $6.20 an hour without benefits or union membership after Gillette and later Tyson took over the company where he worked, Iowa Ham. Jarvis used meth to help pick up extra shifts even in the halcyon days of a livable wage, but it’s difficult to imagine how one could make do on $6.20 an hour without tweeking — Reding claims local meth production increased by 400 percent around the same time. Jarvis’ narrative arc culminates when his home explodes as he attempting to dismantle his basement meth lab. The descriptions that Reding shares — of how Jarvis’ skin proceeded to slough off in sheets, revealing the muscle below, for example — make for a kind of rural Grand Guignol, otherwise held in check by structural explanations.

The author gives the sense of a slightly distracted but pleasant dinner party host — wary of lingering on any subject too long, he returns cyclically to the nonaddicts who form the moral core of the story. Clay Hallberg, Oelwein’s high-strung general practitioner, and Nathan Lein, the assistant Fayette County prosecutor, are the book’s through-lines: their tentative redemption is the town’s, and the book’s conclusion plays out with a Midwestern brand of reticence. But Reding’s attempts to connect Oelwein’s story with his own family history cause the book to lose focus, particularly as it concludes. To his credit, this feels like the result of keeping an over-cautious distance from mom-baiting newsmagazine templates. Ironically, though, some of Methland‘s descriptions of meth-fueled psychosis — an elaborate fetish for enemas; frozen pigs in a blanket used as butt plugs — are far-out enough to be at home in the "Drugs" episode of Channel 4’s satirical documentary program Brass Eye.

Methland also tracks the paths of the meth trade, illustrating how early routes were established by out-migration from the corn belt to labor markets in Southern California, then were consolidated into an empire by Lori Arnold, and finally transformed into a decentralized system in which Mexican traffickers use illegal immigrants employed in the meatpacking industry as mules. By following both federal meth legislation and news coverage of the epidemic, Reding emphasizes meth’s functions and reputation within society. He links the drug to an incredible depression of wages and standard of living by corporations threatening to move operations offshore should they be forced to enact worker protections.

Meth is a drug with no celebrities, and Reding treats his subjects with respect, despite close calls with former addicts who play disc golf with him one minute and threaten his life the next. But even beyond a standard litany of reservations about nonfiction — that the author’s voice is too intrusive or not intrusive enough, that there are chunks of undigested research — Methland’s attempt to combine personal reflections on identity and place with an examination of the drug’s role in a small town’s economic struggles seems formally stale.

Perhaps this approach is more truthful, though: meth in Oelwein offers little in the way of rausch, which Ronell defines as the "ecstasy of intoxication," but can be everything when it comes to making do as agribusiness exerts its downward pressure on communities that had previously survived on small-scale farming and small business. Though he might not be able to keep his readers fully invested in his book’s characters, Reding illuminates how meth flows along the same lopsided trajectory of so-called development for which globalization is a handy catch-all. Meth lit is a distant prospect, and as Ronell reminds us with respect to crack, it’s because these drugs don’t have the veneer of moral defensibility. A writing more appropriate to the subject might put forth a louder call for justice for the future. Methland does an able job for now.