THE HAPPIEST MAN IN THE WORLD
by Alec Wilkinson Random House, $24.95
MOST PEOPLE who meet 74-year-old David Pearlman, a.k.a. Poppa Neutrino, might quickly conclude: This guy's a nut. That's the standard reaction he gets in the opening episode of Alec Wilkinson's The Happiest Man in the World. In 2004 Neutrino devised what he believes is a revolutionary football play, in which a ballcarrier moves downfield encircled by his teammates, who have formed a slow-moving but impenetrable wall of blockers. Despite having no background or contacts in football—or a job or a home, for that matter—Neutrino begins cold-calling teams, asking to speak to coaches. He starts with the Arizona Cardinals, who brush him off. So do Boston College, Illinois and several other schools. Finally, though, an assistant coach at the University of Arizona takes his call. And after listening, he wonders if Neutrino isn't on to something after all.
The point of Wilkinson's book is to convince the reader that Neutrino is on to something—not necessarily with his play, but in the fearless way he pursues his ever-changing fancies. Neutrino, the son of a mother who gambled and moved constantly, has a vagabond's résumé that, in addition to football consultant, includes an underage stint in the Army, time in seminary school, a stretch with a Mexican circus and several stints as an apartment super in New York City. For 20 years he led what he called the Salvation Navy, a group of nomads who traveled America, working odd jobs for subsistence wages so they could live freely. In the mid-1980s he formed a band called the Flying Neutrinos that went from playing in the street to well-paying gigs, and Neutrino found financial comfort for the first time in his adult life. So he promptly chucked the band to build a raft and sail across the Atlantic.
The raft adventure is the glory of both Neutrino's life and this book. He makes the craft, with a motor and cabin space for four, from 17 tons of plywood and reclaimed trash. Neutrino and his crew set out twice for Europe but are forced to turn back—where is that Gulf Stream again?—before Neutrino tinkers with his raft and makes a third attempt, which results in the most improbable transatlantic crossing since Charles Lindbergh's. The group of four makes it from Newfoundland to Ireland in large part through the kindness of strangers. In the middle of the Atlantic a Russian tanker pulls alongside the raft, and its crew members are so amused by what they see that they drop potatoes and apples and 50 gallons of gas, and take pictures. "We'll show the world this floating radish," the Russian captain says.
Neutrino's challenge to the people who live comfortable lives is this: "Do you want to live as you're living, with no fire, or a fire that's gone out ... or do you want to live like me, in the fire all the time?" That challenge makes Happiest Man a provocative and worthwhile read, even if it can sometimes be as exhausting as its nonlinear protagonist. Wilkinson seems to be aiming for a book that might occupy a place on a shelf between Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki and Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Don Quixote might be nearby too—the bearded, elderly Neutrino bears more than a passing resemblance to Cervantes's wandering dreamer.
With about a third of the book remaining, Wilkinson addresses a new quest by Neutrino—to sail alone across the Pacific. You assume the book will carry this tale to its conclusion, but complications arise. Neutrino meets a woman who wants to come along; he tinkers repeatedly with the raft design, and money is characteristically short. As the pages start to run out, you begin to worry that Neutrino is finding excuses not to get in the water, and that he might not attempt his crossing at all. At book's end the journey still awaits.
Even if you wouldn't go on such a trip yourself, you realize how much you want Neutrino to keep his fire lit, which suggests that he maybe isn't so crazy after all.