Is 'The Happiest Man in the World' fearless, crazy, or simply original?

New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson gives a nonfiction account of the life of a latter-day Don Quixote.

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Book clubs that choose to read The Happiest Man in the World: An Account of the Life of Poppa Neutrino (and I recommend that they do) will enjoy the ease with which they can organize discussions around one basic question: Is this man a hero – or a lunatic?

Actually he's neither. Or perhaps, more accurately, he's an utterly sui generis blend of both, as New Yorker writer Alec Wilkinson demonstrates in his highly entertaining yet also sweetly thoughtful account of a discombobulated roller-coaster ride of a life.

Poppa Neutrino is a footnote in the world record books, an almost-celebrity of whom you've undoubtedly never heard a thing. He (along with his wife, three dogs, a friend, and one actual sailor) is only the second person known to have crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a raft. And he is certainly the first to have done so on a raft built (by himself) completely from garbage.

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It's an achievement typical of Neutrino – accomplished without financing, expertise, discernible purpose, or any realistic chance of success. And yet, somehow, succeed it does.

Neutrino "does not always appear to have a reason for what he does," Wilkinson writes, "and sometimes he goes about things so awkwardly, even ineptly, that he brings on himself and the people around him difficulties that might not otherwise have arisen, but he has ardently imagined who he might be, and he has fearlessly embodied what he imagined." And so it is. Throughout the course of the book, Neutrino drops in and out of the Army, enters (and is booted from) a seminary, travels the US with a group of disciples who study "active reasoning," forms a band and tours Europe with it, travels with a circus in Mexico, builds rafts, plans audacious journeys, and develops what he calls a foolproof football play. (It's a play interesting enough to attract the attention of University of Arizona quarterback coach Mike Canales, who calls it potentially an innovation as great as the forward pass.)

But if "The Happiest Man in the World" simply chronicled the peregrinations of a talented wacko, it would be a much less interesting book than it actually is. The compelling thing about Neutrino's story is that behind the messy cacophony of his life events lies a set of principles that throw up a bracing challenge to those of us more comfortable with "normal" life.

Neutrino was born David Pearlman in San Francisco in 1933. (He later chose the name Neutrino because he thought no such thing actually existed.) His father was a sailor who deserted the family, and his mother was an incorrigible gambler.

His childhood was unusual at best. When he was 12, he happened into a theater showing a documentary about Australian aborigines who would periodically strip off their clothes, burn their villages, and walk away naked, owning nothing.

Instantly, Neutrino tells Wilkinson, he was transformed. "The idea of freedom became paramount to me," he says. "Remaining free to move, free to plan or not plan, free to have an adventure, free to explore an idea or an intuition, free to make my own choices and determine my future drove my life from that day forward. "

We can only guess at the toll this drive toward freedom has taken on Neutrino's three wives and several children. (When an attorney suggested his second wife go after alimony and child support, she said, "Don't even bother.") Neutrino's more natural companions are perhaps the dogs he constantly feeds, nurtures, and pets.

Neutrino despises the passivity and defeatism with which he thinks most people live. He worries that materialism clogs the soul and embraces moments of crisis because only then, he believes, do we achieve our highest potential.

"The bulk of us settle down sooner or later," writes Wilkinson. "The past figures more in our thinking. We have fewer adventures. This hasn't happened to Neutrino. ."

Wilkinson's otherwise skillfully paced narrative loses some momentum in its final episodes, but not Neutrino himself. When Wilkinson leaves him, Neutrino's in his 70s. A football coach is winning games with his play and he wants to sail the Pacific on another of his jury-rigged rafts.

Most of us could never stand to be Neutrino. But on the other hand, who would wish to be his opposite?

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to kehem@csps.com.

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