Monday, January 18, 2010

A place to belong

Nick Reding's METHLAND (2009) is 3/4's of a brilliant book on methamphetamine abuse & the psychological & economic 4ces that drive people 2 it.
But the Nding is disappointing, mainly Bcos there's no solid evidence 2 indicate the problem is solved, or that meth use won't continue, or that the societal 4ces at work won't continue 2 push people in2 it. At the Nd, every1 in the book just Cms 2 B holding their breath & hoping 4 the best. & mayB that sounds just like Real Life, but....
Reding focuses his book on how meth almost Dstroyed the tiny rural town of Oelwein, Iowa -- a town located Btween Chicago & Minneapolis w/ a long agricultural history -- a town that couldn't adjust when growing corporatization in the food-processing industry changed the area's economy in the '90s, leading 2 the loss of good-paying jobs -- & then 2 the loss of MOST ag-based jobs.
Reding blames the rise of meth on precisely this change in the economy, accelerated by the effects of NAFTA, & by the effect of illegal immigrants Bing willing 2 take over tough ag-related jobs (such as meat-packing) 4 considerably less $$$.
The combination of these market 4ces collapsed the rural economy thruout the Midwest & Intermountain West -- Reding's point is that Oelwein could B almost NE small town, NEwhere.
With no jobs, no income, no tax revenue, small towns started falling apart -- & meanwhile small-town residents started "cooking" homemade batches of meth in their basements, bathrooms & kitchen sinks. Sometimes these "Beavis & Butthead-operated" meth labs blew up. & even if they didn't, there were health problems, toxic-waste problems, theft, robbery, sometimes murder -- & also the "tweakers" 4 society 2 deal w/ -- but also a vastly increased income 4 the "batchers" & traffickers.
1 meth-head is quoted early in the book as saying "Meth makes people feel good. What else is there for people to feel good about?" In lite of the lack of jobs & the unlikelihood that NE economic 4ces R going 2 change NEtime in the future, these words reverberate thruout the rest of the book.
Dspite the grim, negative picture portrayed by much of the book, Reding finds reasons 4 hope. He finds good people 2 follow, both meth addicts, traffickers, & folks fighting 2 get the meth epidemic under control. He has a great deal of compassion 4 all these people, even the addicts & traffickers. & he shows that mayB the tweakers & traffickers & those who fight against the impact of meth Rn't so diffrent after all.
Reding spends most of his time following the Mayor of Oelwein, the town's assistant prosecutor, the police chief, & a town doctor w/ a drinking problem. The doc's alcohol problem gets him in2 some major trouble, but he recovers, like at least 1 of the meth addicts in the book.
Reding mostly avoids some of the more lurid aspects of meth addiction. At no point does NE1 in this book torch-up & smoke meth, an image I'd have thot would've bn difficult 2 resist. Hell, if it'd bn me, I woulda led the book off w/ it.
Nor does Reding offer NE deep analysis of what meth addiction is LIKE, Byond the brief mention that addicts Cm 2 feel the high is "100 times better than sex," & a brief Dscription of the down-side "tweaking" that probly every1 is familiar w/ by now. There is some Xamination of tweakers' bizaare Bhavior, & some mercifully brief mentions of how badly meth addicts Cm 2 treat their children.
But Reding doesn't back away from some Dtails that will have U shaking yr head or shuddering in horror within the 1st 30 pgs -- especially 1 story about a home-batcher who melted-off his nose, fingers, & much of his skin while trying 2 cook meth, & Nded up blowing-up his mother's house.
In lite of the grim Dtails, it's tough 2 buy that trying 2 attract new businesses & new jobs, upgrading the town's downtown core, & ensuring more funding 4 counseling & support 4 meth addicts & their families is going 2 B enuf 2 "save" towns like Oelwein -- & there R 100's of them across the US. Mosta these improvements just Cm kinda cosmetic.
But while the folks Reding talks 2 R justifiably proud of these accomplishments, at the Nd of the book they R all holding their breath & hoping 4 the best, as if they don't know what else 2 do. As if the little bit they've accomplished is all NE1 CAN do. Some of it hasta B done by the addicts & victims of meth themselves.
In a way it's 2 bad this book was written B4 the current economic crisis, cos I doubt that meth use could have gone DOWN over the past coupla yrs.
There's more going on in this book than just a societal fight against a dangerous, plentiful, popular drug. Early on it's clear that Reding is searching 4 a way of life that appears 2 B almost lost -- the Midwestern rural roots his parents were born & raised in, & that he was also born in & has bn away from 4 2 long. & when he returns 2 his distant past he finds a meth-dominated wasteland in its place.
This is an Xcellent, involving, vivid book, even if I think the Nding is unresolved. The fact that it IS unresolved perhaps shows how close 2 2day's reality Reding got, & how good a reporter he is.
If U're 1 of those folks who think small country towns have none of the problems of big cities, U're wrong -- & a quick read thru METHLAND will bring U up 2 speed. I lived in small rural towns 4 more than 10 yrs & saw just as much murder, drug abuse, rape, incest, poverty, drunkenness, petty crime & corruption as in NE big city. & mayB its always bn this way -- it's just in a small town U might not hear about it as quickly.
There is much 2 learn in METHLAND. Did U know methamphetamine was used legally 4 almost a century as a stimulant & a weight-loss aid? That it was given 2 infantry soldiers in war & 2 those who worked in strenuous physical jobs such as meat-packing & other ag-related fields? I didn't.
I learned Oelwein, Iowa, could B NEwhere. MayB it's yr town right now. Hardly a wk goes by that I don't C some1 hopped-up on SOMETHING come twitching & raving in2 my store. It's not the book's fault, but I kept Cing Worland, Wyo., & Raymond, Wash., all the way thru it....

HELL'S CARTOGRAPHERS (1975) is a collection of autobiographical essays by 6 famous science-fiction writers of the 1950s, '60s & '70s, & it's ... kinda dull. I had hoped 4 more, considering the writers involved. But it's actually pretty dry. If yr much of an SF fan, U may know mosta this stuff already.
Robert Silverberg rather mechanically & thinly recounts his yrs as an SF writer up 2 1975 -- if U've already read his rather moving intro 2 his WORLDS OF WONDER antho back in the mid-'80s, U probly don't needta read this. Which is 2 bad, Bcos it's repeated & Xpanded-on in his recent autobiog, OTHER SPACES, OTHER TIMES. Hopefully there'll B some better stuff somewhere in there....
Alfred Bester livens-up the package as best he can, but I'd already read an Xpanded version of this essay in his best-of short-story collection STARLIGHT. Damon Knight repeats very little of the material he used in his bio on THE FUTURIANS -- instead, here he offers a rather moving account of Growing Up Odd in Hood River, Ore., in the 1930s.
If U've read Frederik Pohl's rather good '70s autobiog THE WAY THE FUTURE WAS, U probly don't need 2 read his piece here, "Ragged Claws," which Cms good-natured (as always w/ Pohl) but thin.
(Back in 1975, this book may have Cmd like a bonanza of SF info. But 2 much has bn written since then. SF fans who Njoy this book might find an even better value in Charles Platt's series of DREAM MAKERS interview-books w/ SF authors. Platt interviewed in-depth all the writers included here & scores more Bsides....)
The book's 2 editors have the best stuff: World-traveler Harry Harrison writes a 4ceful, muscular memoir, active, vivid & funny. (I don't remember ever reading NE Harrison B4, I might havta look in2 him.)
& Brian W. Aldiss, w/ his English middle-class background, comes from a very diffrent place than the other 5 contributors. Tho the good-natured, almost breezy atmosphere of his piece recalls the feel of his SF histories BILLION YEAR SPREE & TRILLION YEAR SPREE, even here I wished 4 more. He sez at 1 point that his early-'60s award-winning story-series HOTHOUSE "was written under miserable conditions" -- but he never sez what those conditions were, he never attempts 2 Xplain or Dscribe them.
After the early deaths of his parents, Aldiss sez that until he married his 2nd wife & had his own family, SF fandom was the only place he ever felt like he belonged.
As odd as it Cms, mayB these 2 books have something in common: They're both about doing the best U can & working toward a place where U feel comfortable, where U can belong....

No comments: