I stopped reviewing books regularly on this blog around the same time I got an iPod Touch, and there is a connection, though perhaps not the one you’re thinking. I love the Touch — it is slim! it is stylish! it was free after rebate! — but there are some things it does not do well, or, to be more precise, there are some things that I do not do well with it, and one of those things is keeping track of the books I’ve read. I used to use a dear little notebook for that. When I got the Touch, I thought I would use its dear little notebook application, but I don’t, and hence my reading list for the past year or so is mostly nonexistent. I do, however, still read books, and from time to time I do still want to comment on them.
Roger Sutton asks if readers imagine books taking place in their childhood homes, or in other places familiar to them. I’m intrigued, because I can almost always envision a rich setting for a book, even if the book itself is short on the details, but these places that I see aren’t real places, nor do they bear any resemblance to places I have known in my life. (My dreams are like this too — sometimes they start with a place I know, but they never end up there.)
Some books, though, are set in places I know, or know somewhat. I apologize for this kludgey segue from the world of imagination into the world of Methland, but it’s how my brain is working today.
Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town takes place mostly in Oelwein, Iowa. I am from Iowa City, in the People’s Republic of Johnson County, and thus I’m not really qualified to speak about small town Iowa, but I’ve driven through enough of it to recognize the place in Reding’s book, even though I haven’t been there.
It’s a peculiar book which attempts to blend investigative reporting with personal narrative. It succeeds wildly on the investigative reporting front — who knew that Tom Arnold’s sister ran an international meth empire? or that there were so many fascinating parallels between the meth economy and the commodities economy? — but, to my mind, kind of fails on the latter. Reding is from the small-town Midwest, and it’s clear that he was able to use his familiarity and belonging to that world to great advantage when he was interviewing people for the book. He can fit in well whether he’s hunting with town leaders or drinking bad beer with locals at the bar. He gets to know all kinds of players in the town — not just the meth addicts and manufacturers, but also the cops and the district attorney and the mayor, and you get the feeling, when you read the book, that a lot of these guys could easily have ended up in each other’s places, but for a few accidents of fate. One would think that, as a Midwesterner, he’d be a little more on target with his facts, but I’m usually willing to forgive some lapses if there’s an otherwise good story.
What got to me about this book wasn’t that he blended the investigative and the personal — it’s that the personal bits had such a tacked on feel. If you are writing a book about addiction and part of your inspiration came from having a recovering addict in your family, wouldn’t you think you would mention that somewhere before the acknowledgments at the end of the book? If you are someone coming back to small towns after having escaped them, wouldn’t there be tensions related to that crossing back that you would want to explore?
Of course, that may just be what I wanted out of the book, not what the book was meant to be, or what you would want from it. If you happen to read it, let me know what you think.