Iowa meth town no myth

BY ERIC ANDERSEN | JULY 22, 2009 7:15 AM

Author Nick Reding made a return to Oelwein, Iowa, on Monday for the first time since he finished gathering information for his latest nonfiction book, Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town in early 2008. Since its release in June, Oelwein residents have been speaking out against the author, saying he painted a false picture of the small town and distorted the truth.

“Hopefully, a bunch of angry people from Oelwein won’t come down to the reading in Iowa City,” Reding said. “Most of the people that haven’t read the book are mad because they don’t like people talking about meth in their town, which is kind of amazing. It’s not like they don’t know about it.”

Reding will appear at 7 p.m. today at Prairie Lights, 15 S. Dubuque St., to read from Methland. The book tells the story of Oelwein, a small rural town in northeastern Iowa located about an hour and forty-five minutes from Iowa City. The book chronicles the time period from 2005 to 2007, when meth arrests and production were at an all-time high.

Methland focuses on the lives of a specific set of characters, including county prosecutor Nathan Lein, meth user Roland Jarvis, and physician Clay Hallberg. Jarvis’ portrayal is perhaps the most haunting in the book. The former employee at Iowa Ham began using meth to stay awake while working back-to-back eight-hour shifts. Eventually, Jarvis fell into addiction and began cooking the drug, until one day when his house blew up, causing him to lose his fingers and become horribly disfigured. Even after all of this, Jarvis continues to use the drug that is the cause of his problems.
Through these in-depth character studies, Reding is able to tell the story of Oelwein’s drug problem.

“Over the course of 3 1⁄2 years, I was probably in Oelwein about 2 1⁄2 months,” he said. “You know I would go for two weeks at a time and then go home, write and come back.”

Many of the complaints Reding received spoke about the book’s alleged factual inaccuracies. One of the examples given is the instance where Reding identifies the University of Northern Iowa as being located in Cedar Rapids rather than Cedar Falls.

The slew of comments prompted Lein, one of the central characters in the book, to post a review saying that despite a few minor mistakes, the story does tell the truth about Oelwein and its drug problem.

Reding said that some complaints also stemmed from current improvements made to the town, after the book was already written.

“I stay in close contact with a few of the people that live there,” he said. “I know they’ve added like 400 jobs in the last year and a half. The town looks a lot better than it was, but the assistant county prosecutor told me that their meth cases are way up again.”

The author said he was a little worried about how the townspeople would react to his appearance in Oelwein, but he does not regret writing about the town’s meth problem.

“If you or I went there, you’d know in five minutes where to buy it,” Reding said. “It’s not like a mystery. I’ll be happy to make it to Iowa City, I know that much.”

Excerpt from Methland by Nick Reding, courtesy of Bloomsbury Press

Jarvis says he wanted to save the house. It’s considered a foregone conclusion by the police that he was trying to retrieve the remnants of his meth lab, along with the formidable amount of dope that he had been making, for Jarvis, in a town full of meth cooks, was considered one of the finest and most prolific of their number. That, or he was attempting to spread the fire himself in order to burn as much evidence as possible. It’s conceivable, too, that he was in such a state of psychotic disarray, emotional bankruptcy, and physical disembodiment that he was doing all three of those things. What stopped him, in any event, is that he began to melt.

Following one of his trips outside, Jarvis looked down and saw what he thought was egg white on his bare arms. It was not egg white; it was the viscous state of his skin now that the water had boiled out of it. Jarvis flung it off himself, and then he saw that where the egg white had been he could now see roasting muscle. He looked at his legs and his abdomen. His skin was dripping off his body in sheets. Panicked, standing there in the frigid night outside the inferno of his mother’s home, naked but for his boxer shorts, which he’d inadvertently soaked in water while fighting the fire, Roland Jarvis began pushing sheets of skin from himself, using his hands like blunt tools, wiping and shoving the hide from as much of his body as he could reach. He’d have pulled the melting skeins of skin from himself in bigger, more efficient sections, but for the fact that his fingers had burned off of his hands. His nose was all but gone now, too, and he ran back and forth among the gathered neighbors, unable to scream, for his esophagus and his voice box had cooked inside his throat.

The police, says Jarvis, just watched. Jeremy Logan was still a sergeant and a man with whom Jarvis had gone to high school. When Jarvis approached him, Logan moved away like a matador avoiding a bull, not because he took sadistic pleasure in Jarvis’s plight, but because, as Logan later told me, no one knew what to do. Jarvis begged in vain for someone to shoot him. He was burning alive, and the pain was unbearable. Not even the paramedics knew how to respond, says Jarvis. He says everyone watching – the gathered neighbors, the police, the entire Oelwein Fire Department – wanted him to die. “And I don’t blame them,” he says. “What else could you do with a man like me?”

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