This land is 'Methland'

THE DRUG ISSUE: A new book tracks a drug through America's cracks and faultlines

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.

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