Review: ‘A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear’ reads like a Coen brothers movie – but it’s true

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Every once in a while, a book comes along that is so darkly comedic, with such a defined sense of place and filled with characters that range from the fascinating to the bizarre to the earnest, that partway through reading, it hits you: This has got to become a Coen brothers movie.

That is the feeling you get when flipping through the pages of Vermont-based journalist Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling’s first book, “A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (and Some Bears).” It’s the true story of a group of libertarians who decided to create the libertarian ideal — a town without government — in Grafton, N.H., a spread-out wilderness with one paved road, in 2004.

It was a grand social experiment. The town had a long tradition of being libertarian-friendly, but nothing like this. Libertarians moved there from around the nation. Public funding for everything disappeared while a tent city sprang up in the woods. Tempers flared between true-believer no-government types and longtime residents — the sheriff, the librarian, and even the fire chief, who happened to be a core member of the Free Town Project himself. Eventually, tragedies struck.

What appeared on online chat forums to be the founding of a libertarian utopia ended in a governmentless debacle that nearly destroyed the small town. Though it turns out that in New Hampshire, where the government has a critical role in containing the bear population, bears adored the newfound freedoms that libertarianism afforded them. The bear population blossomed, and began to maraud the locals — at times with terrifying results.

Hongoltz-Hetling is a master of the turn of phrase. His voice is breezy and critical, with a finely tuned eye aimed at the absurdities as well as at the earnestness of the Free Town Project. He’s an accomplished reporter who was once a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and as he takes you on the journey, you can feel the threatening moments when the libertarians would clearly rather this reporter guy just went away.

His characters are unlike any you’ve ever come across: The libertarian who purchases an old church as his home and then, to avoid paying taxes, starts his own libertarian church. The woman known only as Doughnut Lady who fed boxes of doughnuts to the friendly neighborhood bears. The four Free Town Project founders who, “fortified by alcohol, tobacco and firearms,” drove around the state of New Hampshire in a van in winter, debating true freedom before they finally identified the town that would become their utopia for true freedom.

The character portrayals are what make this book. Some characters are lovable, some are annoyingly pretentious about their political theories, some are pretty scary. None are people I want living next door.

Needless to say, the experiment that was the Free Town Project did not work. But the only-in-America tale makes for a great read, and someday, hopefully, an even better Coen brothers film.


“A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear”

By: Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling.

Publisher: Public Affairs, 288 pages, $28.


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