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Farewell, My Subaru

Farewell, My Subaru Doug Fine Villard, 224 pp., $24

Book CoverDoug Fine spends a suspicious  amount of time with his goats in Farewell, My Subaru. He sleeps and meditates with the creatures in their corral, serenades them on his saxophone, hand -- feeds them, and hauls them out of his rosebushes on a weekly basis. Then again, if you were addicted to ice cream, as Fine is, and committed to eating locally, perhaps you, too, would defend goat milk as if your life depended on it.

Fine acquires his goats, Melissa and Natalie, as part of his "adventure in living green." Spurred by eco-guilt, the public radio contributor moves to the New Mexico desert to free himself from the fossil-fuel food chain while continuing to live like an American -- that is, with all sorts of energy-intensive comforts (like a computer, a subwoofer, and ice cream). He converts a truck to run on biodiesel, rigs up a solar-powered water pump and heater, attaches solar panels to his roof, and buys the goats, plus chickens, seeds, and a drip-irrigation system.

Fine recognizes the irony of purchasing so much new stuff -- water buckets, 10-packs of paper towels -- while trying to go deep green. But skipping a few trips to Wal-Mart in favor of flea markets, or using sponges instead of disposables, never occurs to him. He also fails to examine the full range of his impact on the planet: a literary Mr. Magoo, he notes that once his truck is converted to run on grease, "I could drive around the world without guilt if I wanted to."

Eventually, Fine slashes his fuel bills, bonds with the neighbors, and raises a bounteous vegetable crop -- all good things. But he glosses over many important details. He has a horror of the "toxic" purple primer that glues together his new water pipes, but we never learn what the stuff actually is. Chiclets of boxed data ("every year, 62,000 square miles of land loses its vegetation") appear throughout the text, but they're often vague. Is that vegetation lost to condos, desertification, farming, or transplanted Long Islanders trying to raise goats?

If you're reading this book with hopes of reducing your own earthly footprint, you might want to skip to the end, where an afterword offers solid advice (get to know your local officials, for example, to fight sprawl in your own community) and sources for learning more.

Is the book fun to read? Sure. It's always amusing to read about someone else's mishaps-with weather, weeds, carnivores (a hawk, a rattlesnake, and a coyote that Fine names Dick Cheney), and hippies with whom one competes for fryer grease.

But this lightheartedness belies a hard truth: the author has absolutely nothing -- beyond his book advance-at stake. If his crop fails, he will drive to town and buy food. If the sun doesn't shine, he will buy electricity off the grid. Fine makes the switch to carbon neutrality look easy. Just call in some professionals, have a few yucks, and slap down the American Express card.

On the other hand, the peevish reviewer might ask herself: What's wrong with that? Must the eco-righteous suffer? No, but perhaps the eco-righteous should acknowledge that Farewell, My Subaru is a bit of a fantasy, and very few people have the time or money to follow the author into the land of eternal sunshine. Given that fact, shouldn't our goal be to live less like Americans -- cutting consumption and plugging in fewer gizmos -- than to perpetuate our oil-hungry ways?

Or maybe this peevish reviewer is just jealous-of the solar panels, the flourishing garden, and the goats. Please pass the carbon-neutral chocolate ice cream.

image of Elizabeth Royte
OnEarth contributing editor Elizabeth Royte also writes for the New York Times Book Review, which called her "no stranger to the pleasures and perils of chasing errant pieces of plastic and other castoffs to surprising (and often disgusting) places."... READ MORE >

I read this book in one sitting and laughed all the way through.