Too Big to Ignore: On Bill McKibben's "Radio Free Vermont"
Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance
Reviewed by Alan Good
In 1980, Edward Abbey wrote an essay called “Down the River with Henry Thoreau” that’s always bugged me—always since I first read it, that is. It’s a fine essay describing a trip down the Green River, a trip I’m eager to make. The thing that bugs me is the timing: “Here we are, slipping away in the early morning of another Election Day. A couple of us did vote this morning but we are not, really, good citizens. Voting for the lesser evil on the grounds that otherwise we’d be stuck with the greater evil. Poor grounds for choice, certainly. Losing grounds.”
God damn it, Ed. As much as I love Abbey, this is the mentality, this both-parties-are-the-same-ism, that stuck us with Reagan, that stuck us with Bush, that has stuck us with Trump. The Democrats have serious flaws, but at least they don’t think The Handmaid’s Tale and “Politics and the English Language” are fucking how-to manuals. “We will not see other humans or learn of the election results for ten days to come,” says Abbey, sheltered in a magical place with some friends and an old copy of Walden. “And so we prefer it. We like it that way. What could be older than the news? We shall treasure the bliss of our ignorance for as long as we can. ‘The man who goes each day to the village to hear the latest news has not heard from himself in a long time.’ Who said that? Henry, naturally. The arrogant, insolent village crank. I think of another bumper sticker, one I’ve seen several times in several places this year: NOBODY FOR PRESIDENT. Amen.”
Five years after publishing The Monkey Wrench Gang, a book about taking action, about giving a shit, Abbey was sharing the gospel of nihilism. It’s not that I think Abbey was a hypocrite or that he gave up on activism or stopped believing in the importance of engagement, but that “Nobody for president” shit is appealing, you can let yourself off the hook by believing that both sides are equally terrible, and even though I know Abbey was susceptible to bumper sticker philosophy, I’m still irked when I see him promote it. Contrast Abbey’s deliberate ignorance with the reluctant engagement of Vern Barclay, one of the main characters of Radio Free Vermont, as he walks in the Vermont woods in what should be deep winter:
That too-warm breeze pulled Vern out of his contentment. He saw a sloppy pile of bear scat on the ground next to his foot, and he shook his head—bears were not supposed to be out in the woods in January, not in Vermont. They should be in their dens. Vermont might be a place outside the world’s rush, but the world’s rush was doing it in—winter was vanishing, a fact that he connected to that Walmart, and to that larger globe it in turn was linked to. You couldn’t just ignore the world, that was the problem, because now it pressed on you, without regard for borders. Most presidents in his lifetime you could forget for weeks at a time, but not this one, with the endless twittering. Too much somewhere else became too much here.
There was probably a time when Vern would have felt the draw of that asinine bumper sticker; I want to hope there are real Verns out there, people who didn’t pay attention before but are pissed off now and ready (to steal the NRA’s catchphrase*) to stand and fight. (Don’t get the impression that I’m an activist; I’m lazy and asocial and busy like everyone else. I took my son to the March for Science in Denver this year, the closest—aside from signing petitions and writing emails to Senator Cory Gardner, you disingenuous fucker—I’ve been to activism in years.) The thing the people who think both parties are the same never seem to get is that’s exactly what the motherfuckers want you to think. They don’t want you to vote. They don’t want you to protest. They don’t want you to give a shit. They want you to float down the goddamn Green River on Election Day. Makes it a lot easier for them make their bad deals, to start wars, to fuck up our air and water.
Radio Free Vermont, the first novel by Bill McKibben, a writer, environmentalist, and founder of 350.org, is a safe book, much safer than The Monkey Wrench Gang, the book to which it is most likely to be compared. There are a couple of clunky descriptions of female characters, one of whom looks “radiant” in a prison jumpsuit, but McKibben probably won’t face the charges of sexism that are, often deservedly, leveled at Edward Abbey. McKibben has been targeted by right-wing fanatics who video and take photos him on the street and at the store, but Radio Free Vermont probably won’t make him interesting to the feds, or any more interesting than he is already. The Monkey Wrench Gang is suffused with anger, most notably in the character of George Washington Hayduke, a Vietnam vet who comes home from the war to find his home under siege by the forces of bigness that drive the main characters of Radio Free Vermont—Vern Barclay, Sylvia Granger, Perry Alterson, and Trance Harper—to lead a movement for Vermont to secede from the Union. McKibben’s novel is less raw, less angry, less offensive. It doesn’t have the same energy as Abbey’s masterpiece, but it’s worth a read.
Vern Barclay is a proud Vermonter and radio guy who turns into an outlaw podcaster after an incident at a Wal-Mart. Here he describes his political awakening after his station gets bought by some corporate assholes from Oklahoma: after an interview with Bernie Sanders, Vern’s new boss tells him he he’s not allowed to talk about “‘a new rule that would have let the big media companies own even more radio and TV stations.’” Vern is not used to being micro-managed or censored: “‘I’d spent my whole career thinking of myself as my own man . . . . But I found I didn’t like being told what to talk about, and I found that it was enough to make me think in a political way for the first time in my life.’” He intends to end his radio career with a mild shenanigan during a broadcast from the opening of a much-protested but unstoppable Wal-Mart. He plants a few malcontent interviewees who talk about the cheapness of the products for sale. But Perry Alterson, a young computer whiz with dreads, has planned his own stunt—reversing the sewer system underneath the big box store so that the brand-new floor of the brand-new Wal-Mart will be flooded with sewer water. The two pranksters escape in stolen hip waders and go underground together. They hide out in the home of Sylvia Granger, who runs a business teaching transplants how to live in Vermont, and start a podcast called Radio Free Vermont. The podcast gets a lot of attention, and it leads to the call for secession, and soon his crew is joined by Trance Harper, a gold-winning biathlete whom Vern had once trained.
Vern and the gang pull off a few entertaining stunts, hacking into the radio feed of a Starbucks to play some real fucking music, hijacking a Coors truck to replace the watery Colorado beer with local brew, hacking into the JumboTron at the opening of a giant event center whose big feature is a retractable roof, but there’s nothing really dangerous or antisocial. This book is intended to be taken seriously, not literally, unlike Trump, who is not to be taken either seriously or literally. As McKibben points out in an afterword, the moral of the novel is “not ‘We should all secede.’ Instead, it’s that when confronted by small men doing big and stupid things, we need to resist with all the creativity and wit we can muster, and if we can do so without losing the civility that makes life enjoyable, then so much the better.”
Just to be clear, when McKibben says “civility” he is talking about (locally brewed) beer.
Don’t secede, is what this novel is saying, but do get active, do something, start local, start small. Here’s Trance, the socially awkward, sharp-shooting athlete and veteran, upstaging the self-important governor at the opening ceremony of the big event center with the retractable roof and JumboTron, named in the governor’s honor, where the big deal is that Nickelback will be the first big band to play. Trance has been roped into the ceremony, in her role as a local hero, in order to kiss the governor's ass, but, like those annoying celebrities who annoy you with their political opinions, who refuse to stay in their lane, she uses her platform to spread the truth. It's a small thing with a big impact:
“I learned a small sport, where tiny details make all the difference, and I won the Olympic medal by the smallest of margins. And then I went away, like so many thousands of other Vermonters, to very big wars in a very big world. I do not regret my service, and I’m not ashamed of it; I’m proud of my brothers and sisters in the military. But I didn’t feel as if I was protecting Vermont. I felt like I was protecting bigness—big oil and big companies who made big money running those wars. And when I got home, I saw more clearly that bigness coming to my state: not just big box stores, but big box houses built by people who’d made big money in big banks in big cities. And who drove very big vehicles, usually quite badly. Big dairies putting all the small farms I knew out of business. And the big problems it’s all causing, not least of which is that we never have big snows anymore, which is big trouble if you’re a skier.’”
It’s not just bigness that’s ruining this country and this planet, not just Trump and Trumpism (or if you’re a Republican, you might consider that it’s not just “the Left” fucking everything up for you), it’s also sameness. Same songs. Same menus. Same décor in every chain store. We should all—conservatives, liberals, anarchists, socialists, even the goddamn libertarians—be able to agree that Starbucks needs to fuck off. Corporations are destroying individuality, uniqueness, and local economies. Fuck Starbucks. Fuck Coors. Fuck Wal-Mart. You see the pattern.
Which brings us back to Abbey, back to that essay. This is Abbey writing, but it could easily be Vern or Sylvia or Trance or Perry:
We gave up the free, spacious, egalitarian, adventurous life of the hunting-gathering societies . . . . We submitted to the organization required by the first great social machines, machines that were made . . . not of metal but of flesh, human blood and bone, of living men and women—and children. An army, for example, is a machine with men for its component parts, each part subordinated to the working of the whole. The same is true for a royal household, the pyramid construction gangs, the field hands of plantation or manorial estate . . . .
Robin Hood, not King Arthur, is the real hero of English legend. Robin Hood and his merry rebels were free men, hunters, woodsmen, and thus—necessarily in their lifetime—outlaws.
In 2016, nearly one hundred million registered voters did not vote, according to Christopher Ingram of The Washington Post. Trump received about sixty million votes. Hillary Clinton, who lost the election even while winning the popular vote, received about half a million more votes than her opponent. They both lost in a landslide. Nobody won the election. That’s what makes this book worthwhile. We need more Verns. We need more Trances. We need more outlaws. (We also need more voters to vote so stop with your "Nobody for President," "Both parties are the same" shit.) Radio Free Vermont is not high literature, I wouldn’t say that it’s an Important Book, but if reading it makes you feel better or inspires you to fight back or at least switch from Coors to your local brewer, it actually is important.
*Speaking as the owner of several guns, fuck the NRA.
Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance
Blue Rider Press-Penguin
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