Let’s get small.
That’s the theme of Bill McKibben’s first novel, “Radio Free Vermont,” a little comic story with a big political message.
This is surprisingly new territory for McKibben, the environmental journalist who raised the alarm about global warming with “The End of Nature” way back in 1989. But three decades later, we’ve got 15 percent more CO2 in the atmosphere and a fossil-fuel toady dismantling the EPA, so maybe comedy is our only refuge.
Not that McKibben has given up the fight. Not at all. The hero of this “fable of resistance” is a 72-year-old radio announcer named Vern Barclay, who’s inflamed with revolutionary fervor. (A 76-year-old Vermonter you know has already endorsed this book: Bernie Sanders.)
When a conglomerate in Oklahoma buys out the local station and lays off most of its staff, Vern realizes just how much his beloved state has been diluted by corporate interests and federal interference. “I wasn’t in Vermont anymore,” he complains, “my own idealized Vermont, where what mattered were your neighbors and your values.” He pines for something “like Finland with fall colors.” After 50 years of chattering into the ether, he’s had it: “I wanted to do something.”
But what can a septuagenarian without money or political connections do?
The answer to that question is the fount of optimism (and comedy) that nourishes this light novel.
Vern’s first act of resistance takes place at the opening of a Walmart, where he stages mild protests before a young compatriot floods the store with the contents of 5,000 toilets. “I knew that we were, metaphorically as well as literally, in deep excrement,” Vern says with his typical decorum. He and his partner flee to a safe house where they set up a new radio show on the Internet. The bumbling governor quickly brands them as terrorists. A movement is born.
From his new soap box at Radio Free Vermont — “underground, underpowered, and underfoot”- Vern calls on Vermonters to reject Starbucks, industrial farming and Colorado beer. (Vermont brewers get so much love in this novel that they should give away a copy with every six-pack.) Vern wants to return to “a free local economy, where neighbors make things for neighbors.” And the best way to accomplish that, he argues, is for Vermont to secede from the Union.
Given his quirky tactics, Vern’s cause attracts some media attention and enthusiastic support. Ben & Jerry’s releases a new flavor with a quotation from Vermont patriot Ethan Allen on the lid: “Ever since I arrived to a state of manhood, I have felt a sincere passion for liberty — and ice cream with a high butterfat content!”
Despite capturing the frozen dairy contingent, the movement’s chances of success are not good. But McKibben tilts the odds in Vern’s favor by surrounding him with a ragtag collection of organic, all-natural warriors: There’s a young tech wizard who keeps Vern’s podcast on the Web but invisible to the FBI, and a pretty Olympic biathlete who can play the hero card when she needs to. They’re all holed up in the home of a fellow traveler who teaches classes to wealthy New York escapees in her School for New Vermonters (“Today we’ll cover driving in the mud”).
The early parts of the novel are taken up with Vern’s podcast monologues. “I’m not much of a revolutionary,” he tells his listeners, but like most great revolutionaries, he’s a big talker. We get whole pages of explanation about the evils of industrial farming, the sources of modern alienation and the highlights of Vermont’s proud history. That could be tiresome, for sure, but McKibben, who lives in Vermont, has re-created on the page the pleasures of a good old radio voice: a lulling mixture of curious detail, dignified outrage and self-deprecating humor. Vern is “famous for his pauses,” McKibben writes. “It was a trick he’d stolen from Paul Harvey.”
That geriatric reference is a handy indication of the audience for “Radio Free Vermont.” If these rebels wore uniforms, they’d come from L.L. Bean. Vern and his friends share McKibben’s nonviolent philosophy. Their stunts of resistance are irritating (and funny) but never lethal. And no matter how much firepower the government rains down on the elusive Radio Free Vermont, the state and federal agents are never more dangerous than Keystone Kops. Shots are fired and egos are bruised, but this is a cruelty-free battle, like a revolution in Lake Wobegon sticky with maple syrup. During the novel’s funniest chase scene, Vern has to stop several times to catch his breath. Behold: The orthopedic thriller.
To say this is a small novel would be no offense to the author, who praises smallness throughout, but I wish McKibben sounded a little more anxious about the sinister trappings of secession movements. Vern acknowledges the racist impulse behind the Civil War, but he never seriously considers who would suffer today under secession. There’s something irreducibly naive about his cause (and mislabeling the novel a “fable” isn’t much of an excuse). Sure, it feels righteous to celebrate the quality of domestic wool and to lament the closing of the corner drugstore, but local control is just as likely to subject people to more misogynist health-care rules, discriminatory policing and mythological science classes. Imagine the racist theocracies some of our country’s worst governors would establish if they weren’t restrained by federal oversight. There’s a reason white freaks making Nazi salutes are always nattering on about states’ rights.
Given the current reign of chaos in the White House, it must feel tempting to give up an America and go your own inspired way, but we need everybody now more than ever. Don’t run away, Vern. Stay and help us.