Bill McKibben, known primarily as an environmentalist who writes for the layman, never lets his politics sour what is, at heart, a romp. The author of “Radio Free Vermont” will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co. on Monday, Nov. 20.
“Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance”
by Bill McKibben
Blue Rider Press, 224 pp., $22
Few audiences will read Bill McKibben’s latest book with as much wry appreciation as Seattleites. Not merely because McKibben opens his tale, “Radio Free Vermont,” with a hefty swing at Starbucks’ assembly-line lattes, but because he articulates the fantasy entertained by so many in private musings about the Trump administration and globalization and the horrors swamping daily news. That is, the idea of secession.
There’s no coy metaphor here. McKibben has subtitled his story “a fable of resistance.” No mistaking his meaning.
The action takes place in Vermont, circa January 2018, where once-crystalline winters have muddied into a gray drizzle through global warming, and beloved radio host Vern Barclay finds himself portrayed as a domestic terrorist because he dares to complain.
The author of “Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance” will appear at 7 p.m. Monday, Nov. 20, at Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
“He knew he should have been worrying about the people in Bangladesh busy building dikes to keep the sea at bay — but these warm muddy winters were what really bothered him,” McKibben writes. “No glide, just the suck of mud on his boots. It made him feel old, as if he’d outlived the very climate of his life.”
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Barclay and his band of renegades call themselves Radio Free Vermont (“underground, underpowered and underfoot”) and conduct guerrilla exercises to make their point — first, flooding Wal-Mart aisles with excrement, then hijacking a Coors truck and replacing its contents with beer from 51 artisan brewers.
“Did you know we had more breweries per capita than any place on earth? I have no idea why they think we need Coors too,” one of Vern’s masked crew asks the hapless driver, setting him up with a picnic basket of snacks while draining his cargo.
Simultaneously, the collective has infiltrated Starbucks’ sound system and replaced its acoustic Peter Frampton mix with a few words about what it means to be a Vermonter. Moments later, they’ve taken over the state’s academic testing program to release thousands of seventh-graders into the streets.
The technological whiz at the center of this operation is Perry Alterson, a 19-year-old computer geek young enough to have grown up with tepid winters and “inclined to think of a warm January day as something to enjoy, not an omen.”
Perry is also obsessed with 1960s soul classics and, while devising a soundtrack for maneuvers, observes: “How are we going to have a liberation struggle if all our supporters are listening to classical music on public radio?”
The rest of Barclay’s team includes a former champion ski racer and a sassy lesbian who teaches wealthy newcomers how to saw trees into cordwood. Together, they set up rogue websites and disseminate podcasts so Barclay can sermonize.
McKibben, known primarily as an environmentalist who writes for the layman, never lets his politics sour what is, at heart, a romp. But he wraps his jokes around a heartfelt plea, described through Vern’s late-in-life awakening to the forces of corporate media, corporate coffee and corporate beer.
Long content to do his radio call-in show and simply allow listeners to grouse, Vern suddenly grasps the import behind their words.
“Mostly what they seemed to be saying was that our communities were starting to fail. That the towns where we knew each other and looked out for each other weren’t working so well anymore,” he realizes. “Vermont was becoming more like the rest of the country, is one way of saying it. There was money, and it was exciting, but it was also different.”
Seattle, are you listening?
Just in case any reader misunderstands McKibben’s target, he makes his intentions explicit: “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.”