Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town
Reporters and writers of non-fiction run into trouble when, as their story begins to take shape, they decide that that story speaks a larger truth about Us As [Adjective] Americans.Us As 21st-Century Americans, Us As Small-Town Americans, Us As Americans Knocked Back By Economic Hardship — take your pick, but whichever Americans the author now feels qualified to generalize about, it's still generalizing, and it's still an irritant.
Whether it indicates a compulsion on the part of non-fiction editors to insist on an overarching principle or sociological conclusion, or whether former city-desk editors who spend a couple of months "in the interior" genuinely believe that yet another minutely observed comparison between a small town's two contrasting coffee shops — complete with overwritten conflation of foamed milk with loss of the moral compass — is as thick with significance as the black coffee consumed without foof in the morally superior (but still condescended to) diner, it's hard to say.Regardless of the rationale, nothing can becalm my interest in a non-fiction narrative quite like a sweeping statement on small-town life.
Nick Reding isn't a bad writer, although his descriptions dress too formally for the occasion at times in an attempt at greater importance, and read like freshman comp as a result; it doesn't seem like he set out in the direction of any generality in particular.The feeling is more that he took his eye off the ball.Much of the book works: the partial biography of Tom Arnold's sister, one of the biggest meth movers and shakers in the drug's history; the history lesson on batching.The town of Oelwein's descent into the clutches of meth is well documented — but its renaissance is too neat, too hard to follow.The reader is probably meant to understand that the broken-windows theory of policing came to bear, that fixing the sidewalks and accentuating the positive really worked, but Reding doesn't walk us through that as carefully, and frequently seems distracted by The Larger Implications, or in making a particular minor tragedy stand for the whole while insisting that to do so is an oversimplification.Well, yes — so why not just tell us the story, and resist pushing us towards a universal perspective on it?
The book isn't bad, or dull, but it suffers from the predictable overage of patronizingly folksy embroidery, and the "don't think of an elephant" effect whereby every claim that life in a small town isn't narrow or suffocating has the opposite effect on the reader.When it's Methland, Reding is at his best, but when he's in that parodically broad subtitle, it's slow going.
Tags: books GBC Nick Reding