Sweet Anarchy, by Nathaniel Benchley, Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1979, 319 pp., $10.
Man is born free…but everywhere he is in chains. You've heard the line before and realized its truth and probably—certainly, if you regularly read this magazine—you've done something to break those chains. Independence from oppressive authority stands at the center of every reasonable person's dream of actual freedom, and whether movements to achieve freedom have been comparatively benign (the American Revolution, as the prime example) or terribly bloody (fill in the blank with almost every other significant revolution), still, mankind keeps on dreaming the dream and recoiling from the slavery.
Sometimes it boils down to the slightest straw breaking the proverbial camel's back. In pop literature, a tea tax did it for the colonials two centuries and a fraction back. And on the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket three years ago, the loss of one politician representing the people of those lovely places in the grandiosely named General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts got a movement toward independence as far as the talking stage. And provided a lot of otherwise bored journalists with copy for weeks.
Nathaniel Benchley's mundane new novel, Sweet Anarchy, plays with that Massachusetts exercise in mumbo jumbo, robbing even that silly example of the yearning for independence of whatever significance it might have as a historical footnote. For background, know this: the meddlesome League of Women Voters somehow convinced Bay State voters that government would be ever so much nicer, cheaper, and more "responsive" (a dangerous code word, usually signifying just the opposite) if the size of the "unwieldy" legislature (the General Court) could be trimmed. The Leagueies huffed and puffed and blew the opposition down, and lo, before we knew it, the House of Representatives was cut, as of November 1978.
This led to the creation of a committee mandated to draw up the new district lines, and lo once more, the good people of Massachusetts suddenly discovered that in trading unwieldiness for, presumably, wieldiness, they had traded, as well, a representative for virtually every city and town for a rep for a much larger area. Although Massachusetts as a whole voted four-to-one for the cut, the people of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard voted for it by a much narrower margin. They knew, or believed they knew, that they'd lose a home-grown representative in the House. After the gerrymanderers had done their best, or worst, the two islands found themselves lumped together with a part of Cape Cod, which though a cape (and a world unto itself) is nonetheless technically part of the detested mainland.
The island pols whipped up secession sentiment, Nantucket voted for it four-to-one, the Vineyard never really got around to voting, the governor (Michael Dukakis at that point) spared everybody the annoyance of hearing him say "A Commonwealth divided cannot stand," the commentators had their columns for days, and of course nothing happened. Nothing much ever happens in America except business as usual.
Now, Mr. Benchley must have said to himself one lazy afternoon, what if the islands had gone through with it? Eureka! A novel was born. The names are changed to protect the bored, but the situation is clearly that in Massachusetts in 1977. Toss in some bodies, a little romance, business hijinks, a jealous husband who murders; pad it with town meetings and rendezvous and assorted tricks of the novelist's trade, and the novelist has his book, as the reader has it too, if the reader can stay awake through it.
Sweet Anarchy will make a nice little movie. Something on the order of The Russians Are Coming, and John Hospers can review it next year. It's nothing, however, as a novel. And think of all the trees cut down to produce it!
But as I was propping my eyelids open with toothpicks during the process of reading the thing, I thought of the possibilities for a pleasant secession, and granting only the secessionists' arguments in this book—"We're being screwed by the State, screwed by the United States, and screwed by everybody except Tillie Lester's cat"—I let my mind wander (no chore, reading this book) to an unlikely successful late-20th-century gesture of this sort. I realized that in the real world, as in Sweet Anarchy, there would be moguls aplenty ready to advance the cause of secession if only to plug into the new power structure's natural tendency to act like the old power structure (in Benchley's book, oil speculators wanting offshore rights). As a broadcast media fellow I knew instantly that the heaviest winners would be my colleagues and yours truly: we'd get trips to the islands for live remotes, for weeks. As Benchley writes, "Frank Sinatra was going to use the island as location for a motion picture about secession, with Spiro Agnew playing the President" (God help us) "and…Irving Berlin was going to compose a National Anthem for the island if its independence became total, and Barbra Streisand would record it with the Boston Pops orchestra, Arthur Fiedler conducting." Fiedler's dead, but so's the book.
I knew that Benchley was right to imagine the sentiment of most of the prosecession folks like so: "And you feel you'll be happy if there is no government." "I'll be free, and that's the same as happy.…Everyone should be able to do as he pleases, and thumb his nose at the government." Imagine, the novelist as crypto-David Friedman.
Give Benchley his due: he does recognize the overwhelming urge to dredge up "every cliché in the lexicon of patriotism," here in the service of the secession, elsewhere for anything you like, anything at all. Dammit, the guy even knows enough about human nature to realize that just before every revolution devours its children, it promotes some to the top-cat jobs: "You forget, we seceded. Out here, we do things our own way." And, oh yes, the tourists will come. Where was it last time? Abaco, I think; some place out there, like that.
Sweet Anarchy is a crummy book, but the theme has possibilities. What if, just what if, some self-contained smidgeon of America decided to try out secession—and it worked? Meanwhile, we can at least vote against the Demoblicans and keep plugging the voucher system. Gotta start somewhere.
David Brudnoy hosts talk shows and reviews the arts for WHDH Radio and WNAC-TV in Boston and reviews movies for Libertarian Review.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Secession, Anyone?".