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Home » Culture and Criticism

Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town

Submitted by on November 12, 2009 – 1:39 PM12 Comments

oneal-methheadsReporters 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.

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  • Mary says:

    I hadn't heard of this book; thanks for the review. As someone who grew up on a farm and went to school in a town of 1,000, I appreciate your take. Those patronizing generalizations about rural areas are so lazy. Allow everyone the complexity they deserve, please! I might have to check out the book anyway, though. I would appreciate any insight into the meth thing — it's so scary. A friend's brother died from it, and it's such an enormous deal to rural communities out here in the middle west.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Mary: The part where Reding describes why and how it got such a firm foothold is the best part of the book. If he had angled the entire narrative more in that direction — that it's a class/economics/generational issue that has to do with the end of the transition out of an agrarian economy (or whatever; I'm not positing that that's responsible) — it would have been outstanding, because that's the most interesting and it's his best writing. But when he feels bound to mention an older gentleman's John Deere hat and Carhartts, it's like, this adds nothing.

    Also, "the middle west" — very Fitzgerald.

  • RJ says:

    Those are two faces I did NOT need to see. :)

  • Elizabeth says:

    @Sars: Oh geez, the Deere hat and Carhartts. Shorthand for "salt-of-the-earth type, hard-beaten by the toils of farming but still chock-full of small-town values blah blah blah."

    I actually don't mind the "small-town life is stultifying" thing as much as I mind the "it's a simpler life; a life where the small things matter; a life where tradition and family mean more than glossy big-city glamour" and on and on KILL ME NOW. It's really great when they try to have it both ways, romanticizing small-town life and the simple, good-hearted people who live it but also acting like those people are, perhaps, mildly retarded, and that a person of average intellect will be overwhelmed with existential angst and ennui somewhere in between the feed store and the diner.

  • Thomasina says:

    "We believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C. … We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation."
    –Sarah Palin

    Jack: "We're going to find the perfect person for the show down here [in Georgia]. Someone who represents the *Real America*."
    Liz: "Jack, for the 80th time, no part of America is more American than any other part."
    Jack: "You are wrong. Small towns are where you see the kindness and goodness and courage of everyday Americans. The folks who are teaching our kids, running our prisons, growing our cigarettes. People who are still living by core American values.
    Liz: "There are plenty of core values in New York."
    –Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey in "30 Rock"

  • Margaret in CO says:

    What Mary & Elizabeth said – I'm from a town of 450 & I'm every bit as corrupt as you city folk. :-)

  • Alyson says:

    I'd rather have big city glamour than tradition and family, personally, but then I'm a DC suburb native, and therefore not a Real American, so YMMV.

  • Liz in Minneapolis says:

    I grew up in a small rural town of 10,000* in the 70's, and for anyone who didn't, the big secret is: people in rural areas have TV and cars, and have had them for 60 and nearly 100 years, respectively, and they want to have stuff that looks like what they see on TV, and they can and do drive to bigger places and partake of culture there, even if they then go back home, and even if they LIKE living in rural areas and are actively trying to be "small-town." Rural Midwesterners are not like uncontacted Amazon peoples. Even my dirt-poor Appalachian relatives who didn't have electricity until the 60's know what the rest of the country is up to and have at least driven to Columbus a couple of times.

    * Trust me, 10,000 in rural Ohio is a small town – there were plenty smaller, but it's small. Ohio is damn densely populated, and it's hard to go five miles without hitting a town, even if it's a hamlet of 500 people.

    The Midwest is not homogenous. Small towns are not homogenous. There are patterns based on population and economics and human nature that hold true, certainly, but when you factor in climate and topography and settlement history and ethnic history and religious history and distance from major cities and infrastructure and roads and a million other things that people do when discussing big cities as a matter of course, you will find sizeable, fascinating, and entirely non-romantic differences even within rural counties, much less between states and regions.

    I recently found out that my best friends, a Californian and a Connecticuter, have never been to Chicago. I feel horribly guilty, like I've neglected a sacred duty, and am making plans to take them there in the spring. As part of that – they were both like, "Yeah, Chicago, whatever, we've been to Milwaukee and Madison" – I started to write up something explaining why Chicago is both generally awesome and why it's so magical to me, since I grew up four hours' drive from it and was taken there as a child every year or two, so that it imprinted on me as What a City Is. (And in fact, having now been to London and NYC and LA, plus half a million other US cities of 300K+ people, I still think Chicago is a rare jewel, although I'd also jump at the chance to go back to any of the big 3.)

    Anyway, this grew into a rather detailed reminiscence about the first eight years of my life, when we lived outside of town and had a walnut grove in our backyard, out among the cornfields, and a reputed John Chapman apple tree and everything, and then I got to thinking about our house. The house's size and design didn't really make sense for a farmhouse, and then I started thinking about when it must have been built, and went Googling the history of the town and the county and the foundation from which we rented the house, and geez. Just the 20th century history of my boring little hometown, from which I could not and did not wait to escape and which I would not live in again, is complex and unique and moving and funny and just fascinating – and the town's history goes back to the 18th century, and then there's the pre-settlement history before that.

    Now, history aside, it's still a small town of 10,000 in rural Ohio with six fast food restaurants and a Wal-Mart, and a town social life that revolves around church and high school sports/arts and driving to Ft. Wayne and Lima and Columbus and occasionally Chicago for excitement. (And when you're driving to Lima, OH, for excitement – "first place is one week in Lima, second place is two weeks in Lima" – well, yeah. The really sad thing is that kids from surrounding smaller towns drive to Van Wert for excitement. Sigh.)

    Still, everywhere you go, it's just a bunch of people living their lives in neighborhood-sized chunks. There are just a whole lot more of them crammed together in cities, and, vitally, some ability to choose your community as a result. Very few people, even in the major world cities, have lives of nonstop sophistication and glamour and excitement and intellectual rigor. There's also prejudice and crime and abuse and bad stuff everywhere there are people. The idea of "simple" people living "simple" lives, ANYWHERE, is just naive.

    Man, I'm rambling. Seriously, though, human experience is astoundingly varied and fascinating and instructive, and everyone owes it to herself and to humanity to do as much genuine exploring as possible and get as complete a picture as possible.

  • Isabel says:

    Sars (or anyone else), have you read Antony Lukas's Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families? It's HUGE but very cleanly and simply written, and I think you might enjoy it based on your complaint about that particular tendency of non-fiction writers; Common Ground is so hugely long (600+ pages) precisely because it takes painstaking care to just detail people and their actions as accurately as possible. It doesn't generalize, it doesn't answer any broad sociological questions, but it raises a ton of them and gives you plenty of food for thought. If it has a thesis (other than "busing school kids between the poorest and most violent white neighborhood in Boston and the poorest and most violent black neighborhood in Boston was maybe a bad idea"), in fact, it's basically that these things are so. damn. complicated that any attempts to simplify, or draw easy conclusions that apply to every member of a group of people, or propose easy solutions, is just… wrong.

    Honestly, anyone who is interested in, I guess you could sort of call it sociological journalism, in particular with regards to urban issues or race relations, I'd recommend the book.

  • Erin says:

    Oh, Liz. I loved your comment, here, because I grew up in rural Ohio myself! (And not too far from you, from the sound of it–I grew up in Bryan and my folks now live in Archbold.) Everything you said resonated so clearly with me–and not just because of the familiarity of the locales you mentioned.

    I love Chicago, too, btw. (And live in Madison now.)

  • Liz in Minneapolis says:

    Erin – Thank you! Northwest Ohio diaspora, representing! There are about 45 miles between our hometowns, then – Bryan was Van Wert's non-league football opponent, and I was in the band, and that was always the longest bus trip of the season. :-) So you, too, grew up not too far from a place actually called Hicksville, and probably spent a lot of time in and around Bowling Green? My parents are still in VW, and my brother is way over in Wooster, serving as a pastor to Lutherans in Amish country.

    No, I'm not kidding. Also, this particular Amish community – admittedly one of the most liberal/modernized – served us a dinner complete with pasta salad, Jell-o, pop poured out of 2-liters, and all sorts of electric conveniences (plus the worst folksy Mom-and-Pop stand-up comedy duo in the history of the planet,) so, again, even the supposedly most traditional rural areas are a rich tapestry of…something.

    But seriously, everyone, visit Chicago. Trust the Midwestern women.

    OK, enough thread-hijacking. :-)

  • Misslisslee says:

    I've been to Oelwein, and it's actually not all that much of a small town, by Iowa standards. It is to me (I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta ;-)) but to my husband, who is from a town maybe 1/8 its size and close to it, it was one of the bigger towns growing up. However, the points about the economy changing and the despair are incredibly valid. Most of my husband's high school graduated without ever taking chemistry or any advanced math (beyond Geometry). How short-sighted was that?

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