McKibben pens a revolutionary debut novel

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Ripton author and environmental activist Bill McKibben is known for nonfiction books prophesizing such calamities as "The End of Nature." So why does his debut novel, "Radio Free Vermont," bear a playful cover and the subtitle "A Fable of Resistance"?

Credit President Donald Trump.

McKibben isn't a fan of the climate change-doubting commander-in-chief, as seen in the Middlebury College scholar's recent New York Times column "Trump's Stupid and Reckless Climate Decision" and New Yorker follow-up "I Went All the Way to the Alaskan Wilderness to Escape Donald Trump."

But the man who penned the first global-warming book for a general audience knows his writing is dismissed by some as "doom and gloom."

"One of the temptations for the resistance is to become a toxic combination of self-righteous and shrill," he says. "I don't think that works very well. One of the things that seems important to me — and it's often the best way to puncture the pretensions of your adversaries — is to try to maintain a sense of humor."

And so, after reporting on Waterbury radio station WDEV for a 2003 Harper's Magazine article, McKibben imagined a story about a fictitious local broadcaster who, bristling at the federal government and corporate greed, calls for the state to secede from the union and start "a free local economy, where neighbors make things for neighbors."

"I played around with it for a while just to amuse myself," the writer recalls, "and then I became so depressed by the recent turn of events in our country. This year seemed the right one to pull it all together and publish a love letter to the resistance."

Since the novel's release earlier this month, McKibben has appeared at

bookstores everywhere from Washington, D.C., to Seattle, Wash. Although most readers he encounters are familiar with the Green Mountain State ("Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in America," the writer confirms), the book's humor is best understood by fellow residents.

"Welcome to the School for New Vermonters," one character says. "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 ..."

What follows is a virtual alphabet of references to local people, places and things — starting with Addison Independent editor and publisher Angelo Lynn, Booth Brothers Dairy and Camel's Hump — in what the Washington Post calls "a little comic story with a big political message."

The novel promotes not only community but also common courtesy. The author says its key quote came from longtime WDEV owner Ken Squier, who once told an on-air caller, "I think you're wrong, but you may be right."

"It suddenly struck me," McKibben says, "it is the voice we've increasingly lost in the kind of strident, hateful, mean place that we've become. The book is a catalog of things I've been interested in. It may be the sole work of literature with a cross-country ski chase scene."

Then again, the 240-page Blue Rider Press hardcover is fiction. That's why it depicts VTDigger.org editor Anne Galloway asking questions for her publication but coworker Mark Johnson back at his old job at WDEV and Seven Days colleague Paul Heintz reporting for the Bennington Banner.

"The characters in this book aren't based on actual people (though I did borrow the names of a few of my favorite local journalists for the press conference scenes)," McKibben writes in an author's note. "For example, although Vermont's governor, Phil Scott, is a Republican, he's been a stalwart opponent of Mr. Trump, for which many thanks."

Likewise, just because the novel calls for independence doesn't mean McKibben concurs.

"An advantage to writing a fable is that you get to append a moral to the end," he continues. "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."

McKibben is set to share his book Tuesday at Montpelier's Bear Pond Books, Wednesday at Burlington's Phoenix Books, Dec. 4 at Middlebury's Vermont Book Shop, Dec. 7 at Waterbury's Bridgeside Books and Dec. 13 at the Norwich Bookstore.

"Sometimes I feel a little guilty that I don't spend more time helping out here," the globetrotting McKibben says of his home state. "I've tended to use the fact that Vermonters are good-hearted people who work hard on things as an excuse to focus on places with big carbon footprints, like India or China."

That's why the author is preparing to mark the 30th anniversary of 1989's "The End of Nature" with a sad-fact follow-up.

"I'm very used to depressing people," he says, "so, in the case of 'Radio Free Vermont,' it's a pleasure not to. This is a mash note to the state, a place that I very much love."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.

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