A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling*****

How much would you pay right now to laugh out loud, and laugh hard, about something that has nothing whatsoever to do with current events? Exactly. My thanks go to Net Galley and Perseus Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The author is a journalist who caught wind of a tiny hamlet in New Hampshire that was taken over by libertarians:

“The four libertarians who came to New Hampshire had thinner wallets than…other would-be utopians, but they had a new angle they believed would help them move the Free Town Project out of the realm of marijuana-hazed reveries and into reality. Instead of building from scratch, they would harness the power and infrastructure of an existing town—just as a rabies parasite can co-opt the brain of a much larger organism and force it work against its own interests, the libertarians planned to apply just a bit of pressure in such a way that an entire town could be steered toward liberty.” 

By the time the long-term denizens of Grafton realized the extent of the mayhem that these people intended, they discovered that “the libertarians were operating under vampire rules—the invitation to enter, once offered, could not be rescinded…At the same time the Free Towners set themselves to shaping the community to their liking, the town’s bears were working to create their own utopia.”

The newcomers’ idea of liberty meant no enforcement of any law, and no taxes, even for basic infrastructure and services. And when the local bear population blossomed, it was every Free Towner for herself.

Hongoltz-Hetling provides a succinct history of the town, then introduces a handful of the key players. There’s a man that buys and lives in a church in order to avoid paying taxes; an Earth Mother type that decides the bears are hungry and should receive free donuts, seeds, and grains daily in her own backyard; several tent dwellers that eschew basic hygiene and food safety; and oh, so many, many bears. Some of the townspeople are identified by name, but those that prefer anonymity are identified by colorful nicknames.

At the outset we see jaw-dropping levels of eccentricity coupled with hilarious anecdotes, and true to his journalistic calling, the author spends a good deal of time in this tiny, lawless burg, and so he reports events not second hand, but from his own experience. My favorite part is the showdown between Hurricane the Guard Llama and an ursine interloper looking for mutton on the hoof. Another is the conflict between “Beretta,” the resident next door to “Doughnut Lady,” who hates all bears primarily because they are fat.

Eventually things take a darker, more tragic turn for some; the most impressive aspect of this story is the seamless manner in which the author segues from the hilarious to the heartbreaking, and then brings us back up for air.

Ultimately, the bears are emblematic of the need human beings have for cooperation and organization.

Though the material used for this story is rich and original, it takes a gifted wordsmith like Hongoltz-Hetling to craft it into a darkly amusing tale of this caliber. If I were to change one thing, I would lose the digression near the middle of the book with regard to typhus, Tunisia, and diseases shared by bears. It slows the pace and could easily be whittled down to a single paragraph. But the rest of this book is so engaging that I cannot reduce my rating by even half a star. My advice is to skim that passage, which eats up about five percent of an otherwise perfectly executed narrative, unless of course you like that aspect of it.

In six years of reviewing, and out of the 666 reviews I have provided to Net Galley—and yes, that’s the actual number, until I turn this review in—I have purchased fewer than one percent of the books I’ve read, either to give as gifts, or to keep. That said, this book is going under my Christmas tree this December. If you read it, you’re bound to agree: the story of Grafton is the best surprise of 2020.

Do it.

A Permanent Member of the Family, by Russell Banks *****

Nobody writes like Russell Banks. His short story collection has the harsh beauty of a Yankee winter. I was lucky enough to get my copy courtesy of Goodreads.com’s first reads program. Tales of loneliness, alienation, disorientation or sheer, stark horror are the writer’s stock in trade. His characters, ordinary working people so real that they stand before the reader, live lives of disappointment, near-misses, and sometimes terrible endings.

Think of “The Lottery”. There you have it, but in a contemporary setting.

Why read stories grim enough to bruise the psyche? What keeps us coming back once our eyes and hearts are seared by the cruel world he exposes? Maybe it’s because he recognizes the working men and women who make the world go around, or maybe we revel in real-life tragedy: that could have been us. As we close the cover and walk away, life seems a little sweeter. Just enough poignancy is injected into his tales to make us treasure our lives, without giving way to corny sentimentality. And there is never a stereotype anywhere. Banks has too much respect for the working class to let that happen.

Occasional moments of wry humor, such as the “invisible” product being marketed by the traveling preacher, break up the tension to some degree.

I have read other reviewers who feel burned out by Banks because of the painful quality of his stories. If like me, you love great writing but feel the need of a break from the sorrow there, this volume is perfect. Read a short story; then go get another book by someone else that’s a little less dark and foreboding. Come back and read another short story by Banks when you are prepared for it. With the short stories, it is easy to find a place to pause, then return.

Banks has been translated into twenty different languages, and he is widely recognized as one of the best writers in the world. Don’t let this opportunity to read him pass you by!

Trailerpark, by Russell Banks *****

Aside

Who but Banks would even go there? He makes his characters real and gives them credible back stories. None of the stereotypes generally dealt out to people who live in mobile homes surface here. His respectful attitude toward every day, working class people, or in some cases, people who have slid from a position of greater prosperity, makes this book work. The transitions are so smooth, so subtly crafted that when one character, one I felt almost as if I knew them as family, eased into the life of another who had been separately introduced, it was close to magical.

I have no doubt that Banks is one of America’s greatest novelists. When he publishes something, I read it (and I recently got to write an advance review; see A Permanent Member of the Family). But one hallmark of his novels–all of them–is tragedy. If you want a good three-hankie-narrative, he’s your writer. I once went on a jag of reading nothing but Russell Banks, and found myself nearly ready to go put my head in the oven. (That would have been a painful way to go, since my oven is not gas, but electric.) From this, I learned that it’s best to read Banks alongside a little of something else. That way I can enjoy his genius without having to carry all of the novel’s despair.

At one point, I said Cloudsplitter was my favorite Banks novel. Now I think it may be a tie. Read them and see what you think, if you like well-developed, real characters, and can deal with (often) unhappy endings.