Bill McKibben’s ‘Radio Free Vermont’ Is an Activist’s Lark
Like Texas, Vermont was once — from 1777 to 1791 — an independent republic. Though the Lone Star State’s autonomy was even briefer, from 1836 to 1845, some Texans still harbor dreams of sovereignty. The state’s calamitous experience after joining the Confederacy should have discouraged any further dreams of disunion, but in 2016, the Texas Republican Party flirted with adding secession to its platform. By contrast, Vermont sent the largest per capita contingent to fight on the side of the Union. Though its junior senator, Bernie Sanders, identifies as an independent, the Green Mountain State is an integral part of the United States.
In his first foray into fiction, Bill McKibben — the environmentalist who popularized the concept of global warming with his first book, The End of Nature (1989), and founded the climate activist organization 350.org — imagines an alternative universe in which a cadre of Vermonters plot their independence. Montpelier, population barely 7,500, is the least populous of the 50 state capitals, but in this novel it seeks to become the seat of government for one of the smallest members of the United Nations.
A series of minor actions triggers rebellion. Irked that he is assigned to cover — and celebrate — the opening of the state’s first Walmart, 72-year-old radio announcer Vern Barclay arranges with a few friends to prank the event. Raw sewage is soon flooding the new store. Elsewhere, in a yeastier Boston Tea Party, a delivery truck is commandeered, its shipment of 4,800 bottles of Coors beer poured into the Vermont soil and its driver lectured on the superiority of local brews to his Colorado swill. Over the sound system at the Bennington Starbucks, Vern’s voice urges customers to patronize locally owned coffee shops.
With the aid of 19-year-old Perry Alterson, a mildly autistic computer whiz in love with 1960s soul music, Vern begins addressing the people of Vermont in brief, fugitive radio broadcasts. Until the authorities are able to track them down, they operate out of a farmhouse owned by Sylvia Granger, a proud lesbian who operates The School for New Vermonters, teaching newcomers to the state such essential skills as how to drive in mud, handle a chainsaw and run the volunteers’ firetruck. The nucleus of rebellion is completed by the addition of bright and beautiful Trance Harper, an Olympic biathlete and Iraq veteran who is a statewide celebrity.
Vern’s love for his home state is palpable. He is eloquent about the splendors of its autumn colors and proud of the environmental awareness that distinguishes his neighbors from other Americans. “This was one of the few corners of the planet that had gotten better in the last century, he thought — greener, healthier.” He preaches a kind of Gandhian swadeshi, a self-sufficiency that encourages Vermonters to drink their own beer and listen to local music. Big corporations have invaded his rural idyll, a state that is still four-fifths forest, and Vern asks whether smaller might be better. Vern echoes Jefferson’s vision of democracy as a society of independent, free-thinking yeomen.
State and federal authorities are intent on silencing Radio Free Vermont, and Vern, Perry, Sylvia and Trance are targeted by a pompous governor and the Keystone Kops he dispatches to bring them to justice. The outlaws’ skills at skiing and shooting come in handy, though they refuse to violate their commitment to nonviolence. The novel is not so much plotted as rendered as a Hardy Boys caper. It is the fond fantasy of liberal values resisting the encroachment of state-sponsored terror and corporate terracide. McKibben has produced neither a reliable guide to resistance nor a complex work of literary art, but rather an activist’s lark that trills a merry song.
McKibben’s author’s note describes Radio Free Vermont as a fable, thus freeing it from the demands of verisimilitude while inviting speculation about how it might nevertheless reflect our world. The real Rex Tillerson is not quite as doltish as the fictional one who declares: “I want to say that I’ve never had the chance to visit Vermont due to the fact that you have no deposits of oil or natural gas, but I do know that you have a number of very fine filling stations.” However, McKibben makes his point about the arrogance and indifference of the current administration toward the natural habitat and its inhabitants.
President Donald Trump is referred to only in passing, but Radio Free Vermont is clearly meant as part of the resistance. McKibben’s point is not that secession is the answer to an incompetent and abusive president who betrays the most basic values of the Republic. “Instead,” he says, “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.” The novel recognizes that landlocked Vermont, which, though the nation’s leading source of maple syrup, produces only 5 percent of the food it consumes, could hardly go it alone. But, as the first state to abolish slavery and legalize same-sex unions and the last to welcome Walmart, it is a beacon of independent thought.
Radio Free Vermont concludes on the first Tuesday in March, Town Meeting Day, in which citizens in most of the state’s 246 incorporated communities convene, discuss and vote on matters of public interest. “We all need to be reminded that democracy isn’t just voting for president every four years and then trusting him to fix things,” insists Vern, sounding like virtuous James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. “Democracy is about getting together with your community to think together about your future.” With 30 times the area and 45 times the population of Vermont, Texas — like most of the other states — could hardly adopt the New England model of democratic conclaves.
McKibben’s antic reverie of resistance to the forces of oppression and destruction mocks those forces at the same time as it mocks itself. A few pranksters are hardly likely to put an end to social, economic and environmental injustice. But a revolution devoid of humor is just another tyranny.