The Critics: ‘The Happiest Man in the World’ by Alec Wilkinson

Travel Blog  •  Jim Benning  •  03.23.07 | 6:28 AM ET

imageFans of Drifter Lit—that often thought-provoking and oddly inspirational little genre where one might place Jon Krakauer’s terrific, if tragic, “Into the Wild”—have reason to rejoice. Alec Wilkinson’s new book, The Happiest Man in the World, about the 74-year-old iconoclastic, raft-sailing Poppa Neutrino, is the latest title to explore a vagabond’s unconventional life, and it’s getting rave reviews. Neutrino (birth name: David Pearlman) is a freewheeling adventurer whose claim to fame is building rafts out of junk and sailing them, a la Thor Heyerdahl, across vast distances of open ocean.

If Neutrino’s name rings a bell, you may have read Wilkinson’s compelling profile of him in The New Yorker. In the book, Wilkinson befriends Nuetrino, explores his philosophy and waxes lyrical about his life lived outside conventional rules. “I wouldn’t suggest that anyone regard Neutrino as a model,” Wilkinson writes. “It wouldn’t be sensible. I don’t even myself regard him entirely as one.” But that’s not to say Neutrino isn’t worthy of a kind of admiration.

Reviewers love the book and are cheering on its hero.

In the New York Times, Gary Kamiya writes that Neutrino’s wanderings “made Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady’s epic cross-country trips look like Sunday school outings.”

The Los Angeles Times’ David L. Ulin calls the the book “an odd and wonderful examination” of Neutrino.

Writes David Hellman in the San Francisco Chronicle: “Defeat and discouragement appear to be around every corner, but in this regal telling of a noble life, a life so free and vibrantly distant from contemporary expectations, it is hard not to root for and celebrate an individual whose own saga rivals most fiction today.”


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