There is something about Mark Boyett’s voice that made him the narrator of choice for two nonfiction audiobooks published in close succession: The Good Soldiers by David Finkel and Methland by Nick Reding. The common factors of these books are authors who worked at the sites of their stories for protracted periods of time and developed personal relationships with the people caught in the terrible circumstances their stories depict, and the important issues for America the books represent. The Good Soldiers is a deeply moving, tragic, and heroic story of American soldiers fighting in Iraq. Methland is an American tragedy of engulfing, systemic, and tragic dimensions. Set in Oelwein, Iowa, Methland documents the destructive effects of methamphetamine on this small town, and, by extension, all of rural America and the rest of the country.
Boyett is an actor relatively new to audiobooks. His talents and skills are exceptional, and his voice has unique and impressive signature qualities. Boyett’s narrative voice ranges from a baritone of dramatic tonal solidity to the mid-to-high registries where he is expansive in more nuanced ways. Boyett has exceptional timing. And what is perhaps his strongest talent is the way he creates and shapes the book’s timing with his frequent and fluent shifts in intonation, stress, phrasings, emphases, and pitch all the vocal gifts in the narrator’s quiver. In short, Boyett’s voice is actively expressive in quite an impressive way, and what is behind the voice is the narrator’s highly disciplined and methodical approach. Boyett does what the great narrators do: he greatly enhances and enriches the book’s contents.
Methland is a book of extreme contrasts. In its largest sense it is investigative journalism, objective reportage of the history and growth and destructive effects of methamphetamine. It is upfront and personal in its depictions of the people involved in the drama, and in many places it is down-home and personal. For instance, we become closely acquainted with the life stories of two upstanding and impressive young men central to the story: Nathan Lein, assistant prosecutor for Fayette County, and Clay Hallberg, the town’s doctor.
And then there is Roland Jarvis. “On a cold winter night in 2001, Roland Jarvis looked out the window of his mother’s house and saw that the Oelwein police had hung live human heads in the trees of the yard… Then the heads, satisfied that Jarvis was in fact cooking meth in the basement, conveyed the message to a black helicopter hovering over the house.” This hallucination has horrific, dreadful consequences, and Reding’s depictions of Jarvis living with these consequences are shocking, startling, and moving. The something about Boyett’s voice is his meticulously timed and constructed narration, his expressive fluency, and his ability to shift with ease within the existential extremes of normality and abnormality in nonfiction.