“American Meth” by Sterling Braswell is subtitled, “A History of the Methamphetamine Epidemic in America” is misleading…it doesn’t describe the book or do it justice by a long shot. Only half the book is the story of meth; the other half is his memoir, how his life was touched by the drug. Braswell does an incredible job weaving the two stories together, chapter for chapter.
He begins the story of meth from the first synthesis of amephetamines in Japan in 1919 (although it was actually first synthesized there in the 1890s; it only became commercially viable to mass produce in 1919), then traces its popularity among the American, German, and Japanese fighting forces in WWII. Its growth and popularity in post-WWII America continue; the “straight,” or mainstream, society gets their perfectly acceptable pep pills from doctors, while the counterculture gets theirs from street-corner chemists, and increasingly, bikers, fueling its eventual rise as the drug of choice for the poor, rural, and working-class. He expertly connects the dots to show meth’s powerful, if unacknowledged, role in many important historical events: Adolf Hitler was addicted to it, and it may have fueled his violent paranoia; Kamikaze pilots were likely high on it when they flew their suicide missions; when the Hell’s Angels knifed that kid at Altamont, they were the nation’s number-one supplier of illegal meth.
Interspersed with meth’s history is the story of how it came to affect Braswell’s life in a very personal way, starting with the first time he meets Lucille, his high-school sweetheart, since they drifted apart in college. He weaves the tale of their romance and marriage, dotting the narrative with little clues that Lucille might have a problem: days of hyperactivity followed by days of near-coma-like sleep, Lucille saving the party with a hypodermic full of “safe and legal” hangover cure, a handyman with suspicious “garbage” hidden on the ranch. Needless to say, Lucille’s behavior spins steadily more out of control, eventually leaving Braswell with nothing…except a baby in need of a parent.
One can’t help but compare “American Meth” with the popular “Methland,” by Nick Reding, which came out five years later. “Methland” garnered wide acclaim, and rightfully so, for exploring how meth has affected small communities around the country. It’s a great piece of non-fiction. But “American Meth” may well be the better book; by focusing on one person, as opposed to an entire town, it is more intense, more poignant, and more powerful than its more popular cousin.