Journalist Nick Reding stumbled into Gooding, Idaho, in 1999, to report a magazine story about ranching in the sparsely populated flatlands northwest of where Idaho, Nevada and Utah come together. It was there that Reding first encountered crystal methamphetamine, and he didn't just see it in one place. It was everywhere -- on the ranches, in the bars that overmatched police dared not enter and in the ranch bunkhouses where dealers dropped by like door-to-door salesmen.
Over the next several years, as the meth epidemic exploded across small-town America, Reding encountered it so often that, he writes, "I even began to get the feeling that the drug was somehow following me around." A book took root in his mind -- a true-crime project about how the meth syndicates work.
But Reding wound up writing a vastly different book. In "Methland," Reding sets something that is known to most of us -- illicit meth labs and tweakers, violent hallucinations and destroyed families -- against a broad context of the decline of local economies, shattered dreams and a sense of fate-driven helplessness.
This is a strong book, and it tells a complicated story in comprehensible, human dimensions. Like all good journalism, it's the hand holding up the mirror, the friend telling us to take a cold, hard look at ourselves.
News coverage of meth may have declined, but Reding argues convincingly that the problem has not -- and the broader repercussions of the epidemic have yet to play out.
"Methland" centers on several figures in and around Oelwein, a manufacturing and farm town of some 6,000 people in eastern Iowa. When Reding arrived in 2005, most of the old small-parcel farms had given way to faceless agri-business. The good-wage jobs at the hog butchery were also gone, and even a lower-middle-class lifestyle was nearly impossible to maintain.
At first, Reding argues, meth was viewed as a crutch by local workers looking for a little boost to get through long double shifts. It's not a persuasive argument. Substance abuse -- from alcohol to pot to coke and now meth -- in rural America has a lot of contributing factors, but the drive to work harder doesn't seem likely to rank high among them.
Regardless, meth came into Oelwein and, given its highly addictive nature, the drug quickly became endemic. Because it is so easy and cheap to make -- the bathtub gin of the modern era -- it spread fast. But the problem wasn't just Oelwein's, and Reding cleanly dissects the failed and ill-conceived efforts of the U.S. government to intervene in the meth epidemic.
Reding is most engaging, though, when he dives into the lives of those most affected -- the local sellers, the addicts and the hometown medical and legal workers overwhelmed by the scope of the problem.
"Methland" has a few heroes, nearly all of them flawed. Prosecutor Nathan Lein is a physical giant of a man who can't bridge the emotional gaps with his stoic parents, whose farm he helps work at night (to avoid parental judgment, he doesn't bring his live-in girlfriend around to visit or help). Dr. Clay Hallberg, the town general practitioner, drinks beer by the 12-pack when he's not tending to the meth fallout, though by book's end he has gone sober.
Even the "bad guys" have some appeal, the result of Reding's intuitive decision to paint full portraits, not caricatures. Lori Arnold, sister of actor Tom Arnold, began selling "biker dope" imported from a Long Beach motorcycle gang and quickly became one of eastern Iowa's top "crank" dealers. She left the biker connection for Mexican traffickers and eventually built her own labs, a perfect example of vertical integration. The fruits of her illicit labor were plenty. Arnold bought a bar, a massive house and a fleet of cars -- an empire of meth that eventually landed Arnold in federal prison.
Two of Reding's most gripping stories involve addicts. "Major" once was part of a neo-Nazi gang, and he is torn by guilt over the likelihood that his toddler son may have suffered developmental damage from his and his girlfriend's meth use while she was pregnant.
The other is Roland Jarvis, whose local claim to fame was blowing up his mother's house in 2001 while cooking up a batch of meth. The fireball caught him as well, melting his face and hands. Reding describes visiting Jarvis, still using meth, in his mother's darkened living room in 2005:
"Visible in the semidarkness were fine bones and bright, shining blue eyes around which Jarvis' skin had liquefied and reset in swirls. He rubbed at where his nose had been and coughed violently. Jarvis had just smoked a hit of meth by holding the glass pipe with his rotted teeth" and somehow maneuvering the lighter with the nubs that were once his fingers.
Jarvis -- about to head back to jail, along with his 60-year-old mother, on drug-paraphernalia possession charges -- had become a "Boo Radley" figure, spending his days out of sight and watching TV. The last time he ventured out to his old bar hangout someone had belted him to see "what it was like to slug a man with no nose." "That," Jarvis tells Reding, "kind of put a damper on my Saturday night fever."
This is where the power of "Methland" lies. Reding neither romanticizes nor moralizes. Instead, he opens a window onto a disturbing landscape that we might not want to see, but that we can't avoid.
Martelle, an Irvine-based journalist, is the author of "Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West."