Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance
By Bill McKibben. Blue Rider Press, 2017. 218 pages. $22.
Vermont is one of the smallest states in the union, and Alaska is by far the largest, but beyond that difference the two have a great deal in common. For one thing, both have had active secessionist movements. This novel — Bill McKibben's first after 16 nonfiction books — revolves around a campaign for an independent Vermont and celebrates free spirits, small-town friendliness, local commerce, radio and winter. It's a hilarious romp through a recognizable present, wrapped into a whimsical fable.
At the start, 72-year-old Vern Barclay, a veteran radio broadcaster, is using his "underground, underpowered and underfoot" radio show to advocate for independence and local control — a Vermont in which its residents would drink beer from local breweries and milk from local cows and generally support one another as neighbors. After an "incident" at the local Walmart, Vern finds himself a fugitive from the law.
Vern is a terrific character, as are the rest of his crew — an "on-the-spectrum" computer genius, a woman who teaches new Vermonters the skills needed to live in Vermont (with emphasis on initially keeping their mouths shut), a biathlete, and Vern's feisty elderly mother. It's a pleasure to be in their company as they discuss the virtues of living "small" and democratically, prank their politicians, and undertake a rescue on skis.
To be sure, the word "fable" in the subtitle lets us know that the entire story is created not to represent life as it is but to suggest a wishful fantasy, a story with a moral.
In the same way that Edward Abbey's "The Monkeywrench Gang" inspired a generation of environmental activists, "Radio Free Vermont" may encourage readers to think about the values they hold and what sorts of resistance may make a kinder and more sustainable world. There's an obvious echo of the classic book in McKibben's, but the difference between the two is that McKibben's characters manage to engage in plenty of confrontation and action without resorting to violence — or even any harm worse than embarrassment (excepting one burned-down house). A reader is left feeling joy at the beauty and possibilities of life, rather than outrage at what exists.
McKibben himself is strongly identified with progressive movements. His first book, "The End of Nature" (1989) first brought the issue of global warming to a general audience, and he's been deeply involved with the climate movement ever since. Climate change is one, mostly subtle, theme in "Radio Free Vermont." The Vermonters, in love with their snow, lament the January weather — "the sheer brownness of it all." A politician, in a way we're all too familiar with, jokes about the snowstorm that eventually comes — "ha, they talk about global warming!"
Another theme, also of so much current relevance, has to do with communications technology. The story's young computer wizard, Perry, knows just how to hack into systems, to broadcast from untraceable locations or change what goes up on a jumbo screen at a stadium — or to reverse the flow of sewer systems. How "real" any of the employed technologies are is doubtful, but they seem entirely believable in Perry's able hands. Perry is also a musical enthusiast, especially of soul music, and a reader can get an education in this from him, too.
But it's the very capable woman characters who run away with the story. Sylvia tells her new students, "Today we'll cover driving in the mud; before the month is out, we'll have cut down small trees, learned to drive the kind of pumper you'll find in most volunteer fire departments, chopped, split, and stacked cordwood for several of the older ladies in this town …" Trance, the Olympic biathlete, is also a war veteran/sharpshooter — and a sharp thinker. Vern's mother, in slippers and a down jacket, creates a hideout in a nursing home, which, she brags, has "monster bandwidth."
There are also real characters here — or characters with names we recognize — used in fictitious ways. There's a Senator Sanders and a Secretary of State Tillerson. Real businesses and brands are named — again in fictitious circumstances. Coors beer. Carhartts. Dunkin' Donuts. Ben and Jerry's. Subarus. Real musicians and their real songs. The President is named Trump. The author had some obvious fun dinging the current state of our union and our consumer branding.
In the end, though, the secessionist plot is not the point. Vern and his compatriots want their fellow Vermonters to go to their town meetings — a New England form of small-town government — and talk with one another about what matters. The message to readers is the importance of participating in our communities and their governance. Talk together and listen and look out for one another. Respect and honor what makes each of us different and unique. Stand up for what's right and good; do it with creativity and wit — and civility.
As Vern says in one of his radio broadcasts, "I've sat behind a microphone and listened for decades as Americans learned to stop talking with each other and start shouting instead. … So here's what I want to say, and I think it's the one thing no one ever says anymore in our public life: I think you're wrong, but you may be right."