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Originally published Sunday, June 14, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Methland" chronicles the scourge of a small Iowa town

"Methland" by author Nick Reding is a horrifying look at an epidemic of methamphetamine in a small Iowa town.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town"

by Nick Reding

Bloomsbury USA, 288 pp., $25

This is a horrifying book. It has images in it indescribable in a family newspaper. It is about methamphetamine, the people who make it, sell it and use it, and the people who thwart them.

Meth is a stimulant related to the diet pills and the stay-awake pills of decades ago. Because those drugs could be addictive, the government restricted them and a market developed for meth, which was far more powerful, addictive and destructive. In the past 20 years, meth has become the new crack, a scourge of rural America.

"Methland" is mostly set in the village of Oelwein, Iowa. There is nothing hugely special about it. It once had a railroad roundhouse and a meatpacking plant, but both closed. Many people moved out; at the book's opening half the shops are empty.

As work shrivels, meth blooms. Meth heads go on jags, ignoring their children for days. They concoct the drug in their kitchens from such ingredients as anhydrous ammonia and Sudafed. Sometimes their labs explode and their hair and skin catch on fire. One man has burned off his nose. He is a character in the book.

The St. Louis-based author, Nick Reding, tells much of his story through the eyes of several meth users — one now clean and one not — and the desperate mayor, the young prosecutor and the alcoholic town doctor.

The book begins in 2005, with meth labs everywhere. Authority is cracking down, and the author does not look too closely at its methods. At the book's end the town protectors have won a battle, but not the war: The trade has been taken over by Mexican gangs.

Reding also tells the story of how the pharmaceutical industry acted as an accomplice to meth by resisting federal control of the ingredient pseudoephedrine. From one point of view, you could blame the epidemic on the drug companies.

At the book's end, though, it would seem that the meth trade is like the flu: every time you've got it under control it mutates into a bug for which there is no vaccine.

This is an engaging book. Reding is a young writer, but he rewrote the first half of the book three times, and it shows. The style is smooth, the description vivid. Here is his take on a man, 30, walking into Oelwein's dive bar with a girl, 16:

"He was wearing denim Carhartts and a matching work jacket, each dirty enough to have been through a long day of building road in a dust storm. He had long, dirty, sharp fingernails, and he smelled like sour milk. The girl's hair was bobbed and greasy, and her body was lost in an enormous gray sweat shirt ... It was immediately obvious to me from their dilated pupils and the man's aura of violently aggressive confidence that they were high on meth."

That is the world of "Methland."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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