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The Happiest Man in the World: An Account of the Life of Poppa Neutrino [Hardcover]

Alec Wilkinson


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Book Description

13 Mar 2007
The Happiest Man in the World buoyantly describes seventy-four-year-old David Pearlman, a restless and migratory soul, a mariner, a musician, a member of the Explorers Club and a friend of the San Francisco Beats, a former preacher and sign painter, a polymath, a pauper, and a football strategist for the Red Mesa Redskins of the Navajo Nation. When Pearlman was fifty, he was bitten on the hand by a dog in Mexico and for two years got so sick that he thought he would die. When he recovered, he felt so different that he decided he needed a new name. He began calling himself Poppa Neutrino, after the itinerant particle that is so small it can hardly be detected. To Neutrino, the particle represents the elements of the hidden life that assert themselves discreetly.

Inspired by Thor Heyerdahl and Kon-Tiki, Neutrino is the only man ever to build a raft from garbage he found on the streets of New York and sail it across the North Atlantic.
The New York Daily News described the accomplishment as “the sail of the century.” National Geographic broadcast an account of the trip as part of its series on extreme adventures. And now he is on a quest to cross the Pacific on a raft. If he makes it, he plans to continue around the world. No one has ever sailed around the world on a raft. Meanwhile, he has invented the Neutrino Clock Offense, an unstoppable football play, which a former coach of the New York Jets describes as being as innovative as the forward pass.

The philosophical underpinnings of Neutrino’s existence are what he calls Triads, a concept worked out after years of reading and reflection. He believes that each person, to be truly happy, must define his or her three deepest desires and pursue them remorselessly. Freedom, Joy, and Art are Neutrino’s three.
The Happiest Man in the World is a lavish, exotic, funny, and deeply serious book about a man who has led a life of profound engagement and ceaseless adventure.

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More About the Author

Alec Wilkinson began writing for The New Yorker in 1980. Before that, he was a policeman in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, and before that he was a rock-and-roll musician. He has published nine books, including The Happiest Man in the World and The Protest Singer. His honours include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lyndhurst Prize, and a Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Portrait of a Hero and Nut 17 July 2007
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Alec Wilkinson has written for _The New Yorker_ for years, and has ideas about who makes a good subject for his prose. "I do not believe that someone is a proper subject, or a laudable figure, only if he has made a lot of money or been a politician, an actor, a freakish public figure, or a criminal," he writes in _The Happiest Man in the World: An Account of the Life of Poppa Neutrino_ (Random House). Indeed, Poppa Neutrino is none of these. He is a rafter, a football strategist, a street musician, and most of all an independent being who in his seventy-odd years has relentlessly done things his own way. This makes him a real hero, but it also makes him a nut; there is no reason the two cannot be conjoined, but his way of living his life is not one readers can expect to be completely comfortable with. "I wouldn't suggest that anyone regard Neutrino as a model," Wilkinson confesses. "It wouldn't be sensible. I don't even myself regard him entirely as one." Model or not, Neutrino is unique, and he is happy, and if you jettison materialistic standards (as Neutrino surely has) he is a success, and Wilkinson's delightful, amused, and affectionate portrait lets us in on the life of an eccentric who is as worth knowing in his way as any tycoon or president.

Neutrino's mother was an incorrigible gambler, and his father was a sailor who wasn't around. He flunked school and was thrown out of the Army because he enlisted at fifteen. He attended seminary and was thrown out, and then headed a group called the Salvation Navy, which traveled on waterways and made money by painting signs. He formed a ragtag musical group and got some money by it, but money wasn't important, just getting by was: "His poverty had exposed him again and again to the harshest torments, and yet he behaved as if no one could be as fortunate as he was to wake up with the whole day long to invent." He invented a football tactic by which a quarterback can send signals to a receiver after a play is underway, and part of the book is devoted to Neutrino's traveling to different schools to interest them in his revolutionary tactic, which seems to work but is just too different for the teams to incorporate (so far). The main arena for his invention, however, is that of rafting. "Neutrino was not the first man to build a raft and sail it across the Atlantic," writes Wilkinson. "He was the first to cross the Atlantic on a raft built from garbage." Neutrino may have spent his life as a drifter, but he did so literally, and made an adventure and an art form of it.

He also made it a spiritual quest. He created the Church of the Seven Levels, which incorporates his metaphysics based on triads. "There's only one thing in my soul," Neutrino says. "It's attack. Whether it's musical, spiritual, emotional, it's a multileveled attack. If you don't attack, you're just receiving all the blows of life." And yet paradoxically, he is on a non-offensive and introspective quest: "I am always asking myself, How can I become more involved, more passionate, and less vulnerable?" If Neutrino had taken his philosophy and energy and expended it in business, he would have been a millionaire many times over, but then he would just be one of millions of millionaires, and he would not have been the fascinating character profiled here. At the end of the book, Neutrino, elderly but hanging on after heart attacks, is still making rafts, perhaps one to go across the Pacific. Few who read this intimate and absorbing book will want to imitate his particular style of life, but there is much to admire about Neutrino's eccentricity. "I'm going out of this life as what I have worked and striven my whole life to be, a free man - free of possessions, free of greed, free of worry and strife. Free of anything superfluous."
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Freedom of Movement 4 April 2007
By Justin Mclaughlin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Alec Wilkinson's book has one big thing going for it: Poppa Neutrino, aka David Pearlman. Even a hack writer couldn't ruin this story.

Wilkinson begins with a 3-pronged hook - (1) Neutrino has just created a football play that will revolutionize the game; (2) he is planning to build a raft from scraps and sail across the Pacific; and (3) he's so eccentric that he changed his name after a dog bite in Mexico.

The first part of the book, in my opinion, is the best. It's a history Poppa Neutrino from birth to age 70. Peppered throughout are his philosophical musings. We learn of his childhood in San Francisco as the son of a Gambling mother, memories of falling asleep under card tables and living on the road, joining the army at 15, fights, love affairs; other highlights include Neutrino and others starting a religion, creating a band, sailing across the Atlantic in a raft. At first, I thought I was reading the greatest put-on ever written; the book seemed to be pretending to be non-fiction, and yet had to be totally, outrageously, fabricated. There are many elements of tall-tale here, and since Neutrino is the one retelling his story, one has to believe he is stretching the truth a little. Getting his teeth punched out, and then sticking them back in his gums backwards, where they remained for 30 years, is one example. Nevertheless, fact or fiction, the history of this itinerant man, his adventures, his outlook on life, are golden. Wilkinson sticks well to the meat of the narrative; but at times he treats major events too brusquely. Some of Neutrino's adventures need more space - they are that compelling. I think an extra 100 pages to the man's history would have benefited the book.

The last 2 sections of the book settle into the present, with Neutrino a 70 year-old man recovered from several heart attacks, trying to pursue 2 more ideas/adventures. The football play ends up being merely an interesting idea, although not so revolutionary - but reading how Neutrino follows his ideas through to the end, and his time on an Indian reservation in NM with a high school team is compelling. The final 1/3 of the book is the weakest, I feel, as we spend far too many pages with Neutrino as he prepares to sail a raft across the pacific. For a book that has such punch, such an engaging pace, much of this section feels redundant and at times page-filler. The interesting parts are the adventures, not the mundane details of a man procrastinating.

Neutrino's rafts are unbelievable looking - I suggest going online to see them - as there are no pictures in the book, and they defy description.

Overall, I can't help but regaling my friends and neighbors with the details of this man's life. On another level, one has to feel that Wilkinson's book could have been at least 1/3 better. I await the documentary - Random Lunacy: Videos from the World Less Traveled.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A UNIQUE PORTRAIT OF A UNIQUE INDIVIDUAL AND LOOK AT A PART OF AMERICA'S COUNTER CULTURE. 17 Feb 2008
By D. Blankenship - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Alec Wilkinson has given us a brief profile/biography/story/peek/ into one of the most fascinating individuals you will ever encounter, either in a book or on the street. If you could take Woody Guthrie, Thor Heyerdahl, Jack Kerouak, John Ledyard, Huck Finn and Red Green (of the Red Green Show - PBS), throw them all into a sack and mix them well, then you would come up with the subject of Wilkinson's biography of Poppa Neutrino. Now Poppa is not his real name which is actually David Pearlman, but Poppa took the new name after he received a near fatal dog bite in Mexico and had some sort of revelation.

There are those individuals in our society that are simply different, live by a different code and have a completely different view of life and of values. Poppa Neutrino is certainly one of those individuals. Starting with a rather unique and unsettling childhood, Poppa has lived his life just the way he wanted to. During his 70 plus years of life (so far), he has been the leader of a band of roving musicians and street performers, join the military while under aged, has been a preacher and religious guide, street person, panhandled, seldom has spent over six months living in one place, has had a couple of wives and several children, sailed across the Atlantic to Ireland in a home made raft made up of scraps he picked up here and there, written songs, written a couple of books, been a professional gambler and is beyond a doubt, one of the best throwers of bull manure you will ever run across. Neutrino has rejected just about ever thing our society has to offer. He has lived at the point of complete poverty most of his life, has been homeless most of his life, yet, when all is said and done, obviously would have it no other way.

I have noted that a lot of folks have more or less associated him with Kerouak. who, by the way, Poppa knew. I cannot really agree with this. Poppa has certainly not pickled his brain on drugs and alcohol (although I suspect there may have been a bit of this in his life from time to time) and there does not seem to the distain and complete obsession with self destruction in his attitude that Kerouak so well documented in his On the Road. Poppa has a more or less live and let live attitude. Some of the things Poppa does are down right stupid, dangerous and certainly not some thing any sane person would recommend, or even attempt to do, but they work for him and they make him happy and I suppose that is what really counts.

Wilkinson has done a nice job of writing in this book. I personally felt he lingered a bit too long on the football play that Poppa has invented, which supposedly will change the game as much as the forward pass did, but then I am not much of a football fan and found this a bit boring. I would also have enjoyed the book more if the author had spent more time telling of Poppa's adventures traveling this country and Mexico, rather than dwell so much of the present. But then it is Wilkinson's book and I am sure he felt he should have written it the way he did.

There are a number of extremely interesting web sites devoted to the exploits of Poppa that I would hardly recommend. The shots of his home made raft are something to behold.

All in all, I found this to be a very enjoyable read. As I understand it, Poppa, who is now about 74 years old, homeless and broke, is attempting to build another raft somewhere in Mexico and sail across the Pacific. I wish him well.

Don Blankenship
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Happiest Man in the World: An Account of the Life of Poppa Neutrino 17 July 2007
By Martin Eigen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I question the title. There are certainly happier people than Poppa Neutrino. However, Poppa Neutrino is an interesing character for a well written book. After reading the latest books on major polical figures, it is a pleasure to read a book about someone who "marches to his own drummer" and is not at least concerned with his image. I don't think many people will like this man, but it is inspiring to read about someone who is truly an individual in the age of conformity.

That being said, by the end of the book, I find myself disappointed. I ended the book feeling sad for Poppa Neutrino, although, the author clearly admires him. I found myself feeling that Neutrino wasted much of his opportunites to leave the world a better place.
5.0 out of 5 stars Flawless writing, great stories. 5 Feb 2014
By Jeff Commissaris - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
This is a story of a man with a newly-changed name of Poppa Neutrino, which he changes shortly after he gets bitten by a rabid dog along a Mexico beach front one day and just about dies. After this near-death experience, Poppa Neutrino decides to live the rest of his life as free as possible, and follow his dreams doing exactly what he sees fit. One of the things he does is build a raft and sail across the Atlantic in a raft others laughed at and told him would never make it. He makes it.

Poppa Neutrino is an eccentric and a man of solid will, someone who is not shaken in the slightest by what other think. He does the impossible and has no interest in materialism or pop culture. He is very much an American-- an individual and pure at the core.

I found this book to be filled with great writing and fantastic stories. I found Poppa Neutrino to be an amazing and inspiring man that somehow and unsurprisingly got thrown out of the mainstream radar.
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