Radio Free Vermont Fun, but Uneven


Bill McKibben
Blue River Press, 240 pages

If a crusty Vermonter laced a pint of Ben & Jerry’s with a psychotropic, consumed it, and went off to bed, his dream might come out something like Radio Free Vermont. This uneven book is fun and pokes fun at Corporate America run amok, but the key to reading is embracing the word “fable” in its subtitle. I am a big fan of eco activist/journalist Bill McKibbin—one of the most important voices on climate change in North America. McKibbin has authored sixteen non-fiction books and has written for every publication from The Atlantic and The New York Times to National Geographic and Rolling Stone, but Radio Free Vermont is his first novel. Objectivity demands that I say that as much as I enjoyed the novel’s sentiments and politics, McKibben is, by disposition, a non-fiction writer.

Radio Free Vermont is the sort of book that those of us feeling alienated and hopeless in the Age of Trump want to love. Its central character is Vern Barclay, a radio talk show host weaned on Paul Harvey. He’s not a Vermont native, but at age 72 his Green Mountain pedigree is longer than most. After all, there were fewer than 390,000 Vermont residents in 1960 and now the state is approaching two-thirds of a million. Through a series of unplanned (but not necessarily unwanted) circumstances, Barclay becomes a pirate podcast broadcaster, the leader of a secession movement, and a fugitive from justice. He is aided by OCD technical wiz Perry Alterson; Sylvia, a lesbian firefighter from Starksboro; Trace Harper, a lesbian and former Olympian gold medal biathlete; his acerbic 98-year-old mother; and a host of snowmobilers, cross-country skiers, and backwoods folks who share his view that Big Money is ruining the state’s  environment, character, and sense of community. On Ethan Allen Day* (January 21), Barclay launches a podcast campaign to have secession** placed on the March agenda of Town Meetings across the state—a half-jocular effort initially born out of frustration more than seriousness. As is transpires, it takes on a life of its own. 

The villains include Leslie R. Bruce, Vermont’s Trump-echo governor; the FBI; Walmart; and even some fellow Vermonters scared the secession would put an end to their Social Security checks, bank accounts, federal jobs, access to out-of-state goods, and pensions. In the post-9/11 world, Barclay is easy to package as a terrorist, and McKibben’s novel adopts a caper-and-chase structure punctuated with splashes of satire. Few other states have been as successful at creative-bordering-on-deceptive branding; that is, unless you think its hills truly are alive with shade-grown coffee beans, salsa fixings, cracker trees, and gin wells. McKibben gives this a gentle tweak by having Barclay open his broadcasts with plugs for real Vermont products, especially its craft beers. He also satirizes the promote-at-any-cost crowd by having feckless Governor Bruce build a retractable dome arena, which makes a nice foil for Barclay’s on-the-lam broadcasts that air under the tag line: “underground, underpowered, and “underfoot.”

To borrow the slogan from a very bad no-craft beer, Radio Free Vermont often tastes great, but it’s not terribly filling. Its climactic chase scene and Burlington showdown are absurd even for a fable, the dialogue and plot devices fall on the contrived end of the scale, and those who know Vermont will tell you that it’s not nearly as tolerant and PC as McKibben would have it. To pick one example, I suspect that most of its residents couldn’t even name a Nina Simone song, let alone choose her “O-o-h Child” as their national anthem. Naomi Klein (charitably) links Radio Free Vermont to stories from A Prairie Home Companion. I agree that it has the same sweet intentions, but McKibben is no Garrison Keillor when it comes to literary prowess. We don’t need him to be this; he’s a champion at what he does best: investigative journalism and environmental advocacy. Radio Free Vermont will certainly entertain you and it’s a welcome diversion from the 24/7 bad news coming out of Washington. Read it, but don’t expect McKibben’s insights into the Green Mountain State to be as sharp as what he has to say about green energy.

   Rob Weir

*McKibben is more romantic about Ethan Allen than I. Allen’s  role in the Revolutionary War and the Republic of Vermont is secure, but he was also rash, reckless, a self-promoter and a land speculator. 

**McKibben isn’t being entirely fanciful in imagining an independent Vermont. It was independent immediately after the revolutionary War and, in the 1970s, some back-to-the-land hippies were involved in the “Free Vermont” movement. There is also a small contemporary group the advocates a “Second Vermont Republic.” 


Loving Vincent a Visual Delight

Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman
Good Deed Entertainment, 94 minutes, PG-13

Loving Vincent is an artistic triumph wrapped in a film that promises more than it delivers. If you've not heard, visually it's one of the most astonishing films since Peter Greenway's Prospero's Books (1991) and takes us well beyond the stop-motion animation of Richard Linklater's Waking Life (2001). Actors and backdrops were filmed and then a team of artists—variously reported as 100 to 125—painstakingly hand-painted 65,000 frames. The wow factor doesn't end there, as the film's namesake subject is Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90) and the directors, editors, and art department proceed to bring his paintings to life. If you know Van Gogh's famed portraits of postman Joseph Roulin, imagine the thrill of having him lean into the green table to his left and begin a conversation. Now imagine that other characters also come to life and make their way through dynamic moving tableaux. Chances are good you'll see some your favorite Van Gogh images, given that he produced an astonishing 800 paintings in his brief life. The overall effect is as if hand-drawn anime courted and married high art.

The challenge, though, is to make all of this into a coherent narrative rather than a clever flipbook. On that score, Loving Vincent is more mundane. The visuals are stitched together by supposing that in 1891, one year after Vincent's death, Postmaster Roulin (Chris O'Dowd) comes into the possession of a letter from Vincent (Robert Gulaczyk) addressed to his brother Theo. Problem: Theo died just six months after his brother, so to whom should the letter be delivered? Roulin's first thought is to place it in the hands of his last caregiver, Dr. Paul Gatchet (Jerome Flynn) who treated Vincent after he left the lunatic asylum in Saint-Rémy, and Roulin entrusts his dilettante son Armand (Douglas Booth) with traveling to Auveres-sur-Oise to give Gatchet the letter. You know Armand too—he's the cocksure popinjay in the bright yellow jacket and louche hat who was also a favored Van Gogh subject. Armand arrives to a land of gossip, innuendo, jealousy, and simmering rivalries that raise doubts about Vincent's suicide. What if something more sinister occurred? In his investigations, Armand encounters figures you can also find in a quick Google Images search: a boatman (Adam Turner), an innkeeper's daughter (Eleanor Thompson), art supplier Pere Tanguay (John Sessions), police lieutenant Milliet (Robin Hedges), Doctor Gatchet's daughter Marguerite (Saorise Ronan), and others.

It's an intriguing idea—except none of this really happened and the contrivance is stretched, even at just 94 minutes. Thus the film's reveal seems more like surrender than a conclusion. This is a British/Polish coproduction and at times it feels uncertain in ways that go beyond the fact that the actor's accents jar the narrative—Irish, various parts of England, Central Europe…. I suppose we can we thankful that none tried to pass as faux French, but the lack of any sort of lingua franca doesn't help engross us in an already a thin mystery.

That said, this movie is such a dazzling artistic achievement that you should see it even if the accents make you want to take a straight razor to an ear. The frenetic and constant movement of the lush imagery assures that you cannot be bored, plus there's the pleasure of seeing how many Van Gogh paintings you can identify. Loving Vincent is so creative that I am willing to forgive everything except what was done to Don McLean's song "Starry Starry Night." Instead of rolling the credits to McLean's masterful original, we get a lame cover from generic British pop/soul artist Lianne La Havas. Good grief! That's like putting vinyl siding on the Terrace Café.  

Rob Weir 


New Book on Sports Legends in Time for the World Series

Legends Never Die: Athletes and Their Afterlives in Modern America. By Richard Ian Kimball. Syracuse University Press, 2017. 

This review originally appeared in NEPCA News. 

On July 4, 1939, New York Yankees first baseman Lou Gehrig bade farewell in a speech that has found its way into the pantheon of American history's most famous orations. When Gehrig told a Yankee Stadium crowd of 61,808 that he considered himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth," there was nary a dry eye to be seen. All knew that Gehrig was stricken with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which robbed him of his strength and life before he reached his 38th birthday.

In a sense, argues Brigham Young University history professor Richard Ian Kimball, Gehrig was indeed lucky; he became a forever-young immortal. Kimball's is a study of how American culture canonizes athletes who die in the bloom of life. In a deft introduction, Kimball places sports stars that flamed out early within a grander sweep of Western luminaries, including Achilles, Pheidippides, battlefield soldiers, John F. Kennedy, and Princess Diana. He invokes A. E. Housman's 1896 poem "To an Athlete Dying Young" to affirm journalist Simon Barnes' observation that "only the unfinished is perfect" (3). In Kimball's words, "The black hole of unfulfilled potential magnifies the energy in the universe of memory" (4). Young athletes who perish tap into collective mourning rites as few others do. 

Kimball is perhaps hyperbolic to claim that sports deaths help Americans cope with their own mortality, but he is correct to assert that such passings are imbued with public significance. He illuminates this through selected case studies, beginning with the only athlete whose early death rivals Gehrig's in the public imaginary: Notre Dame football star George Gipp. If you have any doubt that sports matter, consider how Gipp's 1920 parting subsequently advanced the careers of his coach, Knute Rockne, and the man who played "The Gipper" in a 1940 Hollywood film: Ronald Reagan.

Kimball packs a lot into just 144 pages of text, with each figure standing as synecdoches for American society. The deaths of rodeo stars Bonnie McCarroll (1929) and Lane Frost (1989) hardened gender roles, with McCarroll's tragic bronco ride leading to enduring limitations on events open to women, and Lane's demise reinforcing perceptions of male toughness. Call it the difference between tragic victimhood and brave martyrdom. The sexual spin-off of this is the 1962 death of boxer Benny Paret at the hands of welterweight Emile Griffith. Many date the decline of boxing's popularity from this public death, but a greater irony lies with the savagery of Griffith's blows after Paret uttered a homophobic slur. Griffith was a known bisexual. That such an individual was compelled to preserve his manhood with such bloodlust speaks volumes. NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt represents the other end of public morality scale. Kimball whimsically references him as "Princess Diana with a push broom mustache" (100), but his death at the 2001 Daytona 500 took on redemptive meanings for numerous evangelical Christians, complete with perceived miracles. Earnhardt's death also provided a template for the phenomenon of "cybermourning" (10) in the emerging electronics age. Kimball connects each athlete to popular culture; after all, mourning remains mostly private unless print, film, television, music, or cyberspace universalizes and memorializes loss.

Kimball concludes with a look at three baseball legends that were not "lucky" enough to die young: Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams. Each lived long enough for revisionists to tarnish their images. DiMaggio's persona as a suave sophisticate gave way to stories of his jealousy, money obsession, and egoism. Mantle's once hidden vices such as his alcoholism and womanizing became public knowledge. It's hard to imagine a sadder exit than that of Williams, who was already viewed as a misanthrope. But that is inconsequential in comparison to the family squabble that led to Williams being cryogenically frozen after death, his body in one tube, his severed and battered head in another. One might argue that Mantle is out of place in this chapter, as before his death he did public penance for his misdeeds and is now invoked as a cautionary tale—a new life for an old legend. But such a quibble hardly diminishes Kimball's larger point that athletes who outlive their fame are heroes for a season, whereas those taken prematurely are immortals.

Legends Never Die is a natural for undergraduate classes given its brevity and its easy-to-digest prose. It would work quite well in a sports history course, but also in classes focusing on aspects of American culture such as celebrity and fandom studies, identity politics, folklore, civic religion, and explorations of death and dying.  

Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst