It's a Fine Life

  Enlarge Photo    
Sunday, April 6, 2008


An Epic Adventure in Local Living

By Doug Fine

Villard. 210 pp. $24

One day roving journalist Doug Fine decided to change his life. He would move to the Mimbres Valley in southern New Mexico, trade in his trusty 12-year-old Subaru for a biodiesel-fueled monster truck, buy a couple of Nubian goat kids and some chicks, start a garden and set out to live an oil-free life. Farewell, My Subaru is his memoir of that venture.

Known for his first book, Not Really an Alaskan Mountain Man, which tells the story of his previous life-changing move, that time to Alaska, Fine is an amiable and self-deprecating storyteller in the mold of, say, Douglas Adams. (The name of his homey, hippie-style ranch, the Funky Butte, is typical of his sensibility.) If you're a fan of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy-style humor -- and also looking to find out how to raise your own livestock to feed your ice-cream fetish -- Farewell may prove a vital tool.

Raised on suburban Long Island, Fine set out to live sustainably in the West in an arid river valley near New Mexico's vast Gila Wilderness, a place where reintroduced Mexican gray wolves struggle to survive assaults from ranchers and unreconstructed hippie communes can be found adjacent to the spreads of U.N.-hating rednecks. (Full disclosure: I, too, live in the Gila, in the town of Silver City, albeit only when the 110-degree summer heat of Tucson drives us into New Mexico's mountains.) He concedes up front that he's not willing to do without his wi-fi or iPod, and we thank him for that: His project is not to secede from modernity but to live a life that's comfortable and connected without being dependent on petroleum for power.

Unfortunately, he also finds himself relying on a nearby Wal-Mart for many of the supplies needed to start up his non-fossil-fueled utopia: "I hit the Wallyworld exit every time I went to town. It was open all the time, and its crappy, slave-made junk was often cheaper than the crappy, slave-made junk at the town's local stores. . . . Progressives in my part of New Mexico were all too aware of the dilemma. 'Busted!' we said to each other, jabbing the other guilty party in the ribs when we found friends in the gardening or paper towel aisle."

Fine's got us dead to rights: Many's the time I've bumped into a fellow liberal shopping beneath those same fluorescent lights and shared a guilty grimace. It's almost impossible to escape Wal-Mart completely even if you're willing to do without a few appliances and goods for the sake of living closer to the land. Where else to buy the nuts and bolts you need for your clever solar water heater? Fine's utopia is frequently invaded by such contradictions, and the narrative is interspersed with intriguing factoids about the oil economy: "A product imported from Shanghai travels 6,438 miles to get to a market in Los Angeles. There were 7.2 billion visits made to Wal-Mart in 2006. Earth's population is 6.5 billion."

Farewell, My Subaru is replete with descriptions of the adorable antics of baby goats Natalie and Melissa, named after singers Merchant and Etheridge, which even to goat-appreciators like me can seem a little cutesy at times. The pratfalls of goats don't translate easily to the page. And the book's lighthearted prose is peppered with pop-culture and political similes -- Fine has a weakness for celebrity references, so that a single paragraph can contain shoutouts to both Laurie David and Lindsay Lohan. The wily coyote who stalks and eats his chickens and has to be held off with a shotgun is dubbed Dick Cheney, and hackneyed jokes about Bill and Hillary's love life are here, too. But then, a more earnest and straighter account of Fine's travails wouldn't do anyone too many favors either. Even if you're groaning at the goof factor, Farewell is entertaining and readable, and may inspire you to try a few new things.

-- Lydia Millet 's most recent novel is "How the Dead Dream."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company