Nick Reding, the author of a well-received book about methamphetamine's 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.
Meth "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 uses 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 meth'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 compartmentalize meth "into somebody else's problem, somebody else's part of America." But, he finally had to acknowledge, meth 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 that 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 get national attention, some residents of Oelwein are criticizing it.
They say it sensationalizes stories, such as the one about a man who Reding says essentially melted his face and cooked his esophagus in an explosion after he poured meth-making chemicals down a basement 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 on as far as the problem of meth, but that's the only thing I'll give him credit for," says 60-year-old Kathy Adams, a lifelong 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 meth than to its longtime 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.
"There has to be a place to start, so 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.
Airing dirty laundry
And some people in Oelwein aver that Reding has it right. Among them: Dr. Clay Hallberg, a local physician and central figure in the book.
He says some people don't want to talk about the area's meth problem "any more than you would want to talk about ... there being incest in the family."
"I am not surprised by the collective denial that some of the people in the community have expressed," Hallberg says. "If you did not work in the emergency room, if you did not work in the police department, if you were not with (human services), many things would seem normal and you would not be aware of the problem."
Ultimately, Hallberg says, it's more important to deal with meth's victims and the town's problems than debate the book's merits.
Since the book's publication, Reding has returned to Oelwein and faced skepticism and some hostility. But that won't change his feeling for the town and its people.
"You can't write 270-some odd pages of an intimate portrait of a place unless you like it, unless you have respect for the people there, unless you think they are dignified, which the people there are," he said.