A few of my friends have asked me if I watch Breaking Bad, the meth-fueled, catastrophe-in-progress drama that has grabbed fans’ attention as the final eight episodes are metered out. I initially stayed away from the series because it struck me as depressing. It looked like a voyeuristic journey into depravity and moral ambiguity, and frankly, that’s not my idea of entertainment. However, we recently renewed Netflix, so I succumbed to the suggestions and binged a couple of seasons. It was interesting at first, but it became very dark, and then it jumped the shark. When they went ham-handed on the unintended consequences symbolism with the mid-air collision of two passenger planes I was done, but the underlying subject matter interested me. By happenstance, I was also reading Methland by Nick Reding. There are some aspects of the real meth epidemic that I have been interested in learning more about, particularly as it relates to rural America and small-town economics, and this book was a fascinating eye-opener that showed reality is far scarier than the fiction of Breaking Bad.
Methland primarily uses Oelwein, Iowa, a 6,000-resident farming town as a backdrop to illustrate the timeline of the emergence of methamphetamine and to provide an intimate examination of the causality. The author tracks a handful of real people through the decline and renewal of the town and puts together a compelling analysis of the economic pressures that turn blue-collar communities towards meth. Big businesses cutting wages because of globalization and cheap illegal labor inclined many hardworking people to turn to meth to help them pull double shifts staying awake for sometimes days without sleep. But the end is always destructive and small towns lacking funds for social programs are left with scores of burnt-out meth junkies in need of treatment or incarceration. In fact the author notes that many small towns’ legal systems are so overburdened by meth dealers, users and producers that they have had to develop abbreviated court systems to deal with the volume and lack of funds.
But the best thing this book offers is a picture of the human toll. While shows like Breaking Bad sensationalize meth culture, the raw human toll that the drug takes is far more compelling and frightening. Take, for example, Roland Jarvis. The author tracks the former employee of Iowa Ham who began using meth to stay awake while working back-to-back eight-hour shifts. Eventually, Jarvis falls into addiction and turns to the best money-making racket in town, manufacturing meth. One evening while experiencing hallucinations that a black helicopter is hovering over his house to arrest him, Jarvis decides to dump all his supplies for cooking meth down the floor drain of his basement. Satisfied with his accomplishment, he lights a cigarette and ignites the toxic fumes and sets the house ablaze. Fueled by meth and adrenaline, he attempts to extinguish the fire with a bucket filled with the kitchen sink. As his clothes burn off, he begins to realize he is covered in a white goop that turns out to be what is left of his skin. Finally running from the house, he pleads with emergency responders to shoot him because he can’t stand the pain. They gaze in horror at a man whose body and face are burned beyond recognition. Amazingly he survives. He loses his nose and most of his fingers and is in constant pain as he struggles to break free from the grasp meth maintains on him.
Breaking Bad has nothing on reality.
Oelwein does manage to turn its fate around to a degree, and I think that is the cautionary aspect of the story. While they were successful in resurrecting the economy in the town to create an environment where people could once again earn a living without turning to drugs, the culture and legacy of meth remain. It is a mirror of what is happening at the national level. While the government has all but declared the war on meth a victory the reality below the surface is much different. One batch labs litter the highways, and Mexican drug cartels produce massive quantities of the drug and send it over the border to feed the unabated demand. In the war on meth, looks can be deceiving.
Methland is definitely a worthwhile read. There’s no sensationalization like Breaking Bad, but the truth is much more alarming.