McKibben’s new fable a witty tour de force on the allure of resistance
MIDDLEBURY — Using humor and wit in his debut novel, “Radio Free Vermont,” environmentalist and Ripton resident Bill McKibben pens a rollicking tale of resistance and political activism through the antics of a handful of Vermont characters whose capers start small then snowball into a full-blown movement to secede from the union — not focused on clever hijinks, but based on “facts, data, ideas.”
But it’s the clever hijinks, sprinkled with facts about all the state’s history and points that make Vermont unique, that carry this fable on its fast-paced and delightful romp towards secession and the story’s unexpected climax — all the while laying the groundwork for a serious conversation about climate change, the inherent values of smallness, as well as imagining how fun, exciting and worthwhile it can be to stick your neck out and become part of an active resistance.
Seventy-two-year-old radio personality Vern Barclay is the story’s antagonist. He has spent most of his life’s work on a popular independently-owned radio station that is sold to a large media corporation. Shortly thereafter, he gets a memo saying he can’t speak negatively about big media. That gets his goat, and he plans a humorous act of rebellion that cascades out of control at the grand opening of a new Walmart in St. Albans.
With crap overflowing, literally, Barclay and his tech-savvy accomplice Perry Alterson go on the lam and start broadcasting “underground, underpowered and underfoot” from a secret location (Starksboro). The movement attracts a growing following that upsets the seat of power in a fictitious Gov. Bruce administration, which mimics the empty bravado and shameless self-promotion of President Trump.
Trump’s election, in fact, prompted the author’s decision to finish the book and get it on store shelves.
“One reason I published the book this year (after working on it sporadically for the past seven or eight years) was to give people something to laugh about in a year where we really need that,” McKibben said. “This president has taken that sense of humor out of society; everything is gloom and doom among a good segment of the public. This book gives them a reason to laugh.”
Too often in today’s politics, McKibben explained in a recent interview, critics of the Trump administration and of the GOP leadership are too self-righteous and shrill, when humor can be a better way to reach an audience.
“I gotta say, as much as I love and revere the environmental movement, that its sense of humor is not its best characteristic. We tend to be too serious; we need more self-deprecating humor.”
And McKibben is no stranger to humorous writing. He got his start writing a light-hearted column for The New Yorker called “Talk of the Town,” from 1982-87, which “basically had me walking the streets in New York City to find interesting folks to write about in a humorous sort of way.”
Since his seminal book “The End of Nature” in 1989, however, many of his long string of nonfiction books, including “Oil and Honey,” “Deep Economy,” “Eaarth,” and “The Global Warming Reader,” have been science-based — and usually with dire consequences for mankind. In a word, he says, “depressing.”
Not so with this 240-page fable, McKibben reports.
“It has been great fun to write a book that doesn’t depress everyone,” the lanky 57-year-old author says, elated by the response so far from reviewers and the public he’s met at book signings he’s attended the past two months from Seattle to the East Coast and dozens of stops between.
While using humorous hijinks to catapult through this fable, he also hopes the humor sparks the imagination of would-be resisters and stirs people into joining a resistance movement. In that way, the story is a model of resistance that promotes community and common respect for each other, while rejecting the mean-spirited, hateful, partisan place that we’ve become, he says — made far worse since Trump’s election.
“My hope is always that more people will resist that which needs to be resisted. It was the reason for 350.org; to make it easy for people to become involved.
“I also wrote this book to show how fun and enjoyable resistance can be. We don’t think enough about that… It doesn’t need to be violent; it’s about ideas and wit and persistence. And we don’t have Tom Clancy writing thrillers about activists championing causes. This book is my small attempt to help people understand how creative and fun this kind of work can be.”
No Vermont-based fable with McKibben as the storyteller would be imaginable without a heavy dose of cross-country skiing mixed in, and the author uses his favorite sport — and winter passion — as a way to spotlight the warming climate. But Nordic skiing is also an effective plot device conjuring up a national heroine to gain access to the governor’s inner circle at a couple of key events, and set the stage as she, Barclay and her former Olympic teammates pull off their ultimate caper leading to a high-speed, death-defying cross-country ski chase scene just made for Hollywood.
“I would love for this to become a movie if only to see the Nordic chase scene on the big screen,” McKibben says with a big laugh. “It was terrific fun to write.”
Music also plays a key role throughout the novel, with the young, tech-savvy Perry being a veritable encyclopedia of musical knowledge from the 1960s-’90s — reflecting McKibben’s love and knowledge of music of that same period — as they stage a statewide search for new anthem for an independent Vermont.
McKibben is quick to cite his favorite all-time album as Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” and is equally quick to note irony in the fable with the heavy selection of Motown favorites in a state that is notoriously white. For all of Vermont’s virtues, McKibben allows, “diversity is not one of them,” which makes some of the musical selections and scenes in the fable all the more fun.
But like much of this fable, the underlying theme — the role music plays in political resistance — is serious.
“We’ve been very keen at 350.org to use music as key parts of organizing,” the co-founder of 350.Org said, but it didn’t come naturally. “Environmentalists, we first appeal to bar graphs and pie charts, and that’s OK, you have to have the facts and science down solid, you have to win the argument. But then you have to win the other part of ourselves, the part that responds viscerally to things. Music helps do that. We’re not doing that well enough today in the resistance to Trump… I’m doing that more and more with the Hip Hop Caucus and the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., on the climate change front; we need a rich diverse cultural base to do this work.”
Aside from Nordic skiing and music, the author also waxes romantic about an idyllic Vermont that may be on the edge of losing its uniqueness and becoming the facelessness of Anywhere, USA, but it is not a lament of a bygone era, McKibben says, as much “as a love letter to Vermont.”
“I wrote this book over the past seven or eight years, partly as a way to amuse myself while being off on distant travels with environmental causes,” he admits, “so part of that is homesickness for the state I love and part is to reflect upon what makes Vermont so special.
“I don’t know if we can prevent this slide (into corporate facelessness,) but we should try, and if there is one place I would start it would be to revitalize Town Meeting… The slow slip away from Town Meeting is a bad sign. We can’t stop progress, but we need to do the things we can to preserve the state’s uniqueness.”
Still, fables are fables, and not all things in the book, McKibben writes in an author’s note, should be taken literally.
“An advantage to writing a fable is that you get to append a moral to the end,” he says. “In this case, it’s 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.”
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