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Drifting to extremes

david.ulin@latimes.com David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

WHY don’t more journalists write about ordinary people? At one time, such pieces were a specialty of the New Yorker, where Joseph Mitchell made a career recording the lives of bartenders and oystermen, panhandlers and steelworkers, the anonymous souls of New York. “There are no little people in this book,” Mitchell wrote in the preface to “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon,” a 1943 collection of his early pieces. “They are as big as you are, whoever you are.”

For Mitchell, of course, ordinary was a relative notion; his most famous subject, the 1940s Greenwich Village fixture Joe Gould, was a Harvard-educated street person who claimed he could speak seagull and was notorious throughout Lower Manhattan for screeching and flapping his arms. Still, there’s something compelling -- no, essential -- about such a person, about the way his excesses tell us more than a little bit about who we are.

“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,” Alec Wilkinson writes in “The Happiest Man in the World,” an odd and wonderful examination of a Gould-like individual named Poppa Neutrino. “The eccentrics, the odds beaters, the benign connivers, the showmen, the pilgrims and the raffish self-glorifiers also have their place in the pageant.”

“The Happiest Man in the World” is very much in the Mitchell tradition, a portrait of an independent life. (Wilkinson too is a staff writer for the New Yorker, where this book had its start.) For Wilkinson, his subject is a source of both fascination and trepidation: “I wouldn’t suggest that anyone regard Neutrino as a model,” he admits. “It wouldn’t be sensible. I don’t even myself regard him entirely as one.” At the same time, he insists, Neutrino (who was born David Pearlman in 1933 in San Francisco and renamed himself in the 1980s, after a dog bite nearly killed him) has a lot to teach about the need to remain engaged.

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Raised by a mother who was a gambler, he joined the Army at 15, then moved back and forth across the country for years. In the 1950s, he was a hanger-on in the San Francisco beat scene, meeting Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg; Kerouac’s famous line that “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars,” might as well refer to him. “He has never,” Wilkinson writes with quizzical approval, “made even the most perfunctory effort to stay between the lines,” but rather lives according to his own internal compass, changing course with an uneasy frequency that casts everyone -- wives, children, compatriots -- adrift like so much flotsam in his wake.

During the 1970s, he led a group of people called the Salvation Navy, which traveled the waterways of the South and Midwest painting signs. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he fronted a band called the Flying Neutrinos that, in one 30-day span, made $10,000 playing in the New York City subway. “We’re all of us in the middle of this life-and-death swim,” Neutrino explains, “and death’s going to win, no question, but we can delay it. I am always asking myself, How can I become more involved, more passionate, and less vulnerable? ... Where does it end? The grave, of course, but 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.”

This is, to be sure, a noble purpose, and throughout “The Happiest Man in the World,” Wilkinson honors it as he allows Neutrino’s complexities and complications to emerge. It’s a neat trick, and to pull it off he must walk a fine line between participant and observer, much as Mitchell often did. For the most part, he does this by writing with a lack of affect, capturing details flatly, like a camera; the result is a slow accretion, as if we were literally watching him conjure up a life. On occasion, that approach betrays him, especially during an extended opening section in which he uses literary shorthand to sketch the outline of Neutrino’s experience. Yet when he begins to explore Neutrino’s one true obsession -- rafting -- “The Happiest Man in the World” kicks into gear.

Neutrino, after all, is hardly your garden variety free spirit: In 1998, he and three others (including his wife, Betsy Terrell) built a 17-ton raft and took it across the Atlantic, from Newfoundland to Ireland, a journey that lasted 60-odd days. “Neutrino was not the first man to build a raft and sail it across the Atlantic ... ,” Wilkinson writes. “He was the first to cross the Atlantic on a raft built from garbage.” The craft, he tells us, “looked like a specter, a ghost ship, as if made from rags and rope and lumber, a vessel from the end of the world, or something medieval, the flagship of nothingness, the Armada of the Kingdom of Oblivion.”

On the surface, Neutrino’s focus, his sense of purpose here, seems antithetical to the ethos of the drifter, until you realize that rafting is drifting taken to extremes, an act in which you give up control to the elements and acknowledge the chaos of circumstance. For Neutrino, it’s a defining moment, and the main action of the book involves his efforts, seven years later, to launch another raft, this time across the Pacific from Mexico.

All this makes for the loosest sort of narrative, but it’s only fitting, given Neutrino’s belief in ebb and flow. His preparations for the Pacific voyage are a perfect case in point, as he becomes endlessly sidetracked, spending months in Arizona, where he develops a new play for a high school football team. “What am I doing out here in the desert?” he asks. “I’m out in the desert because I’m doing this adversarial task. I’m out to alter football at this point. And later I’ll take the raft. I see the world as having to be altered.”

The irony is that, increasingly, these digressions start to seem like stalling tactics, with Neutrino doing everything he can to put off setting out. Here Wilkinson is at his most acute, subtly tracing the interplay between Neutrino’s intentions and his actions to get at the murky territory in which freedom and expectation collide. As the book progresses, he becomes more of an active presence, joining Neutrino at points on his peregrinations, helping him gather supplies and construct his vessel, highlighting his at-times difficult interactions, especially with those he loves. When Neutrino chases off a woman friend with his stubborn self-absorption, Wilkinson chides him for being difficult. “Everybody I ever took with me anywhere got more than they bargained for,” the older man replies. In some sense, that’s true of Wilkinson also -- and yet there remains a sympathy, a respect. “You’re a great man to do all this,” Wilkinson tells him at the end of the book. (“Often I say things I regret,” he adds in an aside; “it’s nearly a habit with me. In case something happened to him, though, I wanted him to know how I felt.”) Neutrino’s response? “ ‘Thank you,’ he said shyly. ‘I am a great man. But you and I are the only ones who know it.’ ”

On the one hand, that’s the downside of a life without limits, the self-obsession that a personality like Neutrino’s requires. On the other, this is the lesson also -- that we are all great men and women, if only we would live up to our elemental selves. It may be true, as Wilkinson suggests, that Neutrino “does not always appear to have a reason for what he does, 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 it is equally the case that “he has ardently imagined who he might be, and has fearlessly embodied what he imagined.” How many of us can say the same? “Now I don’t feel a victim of someone else’s situation,” Neutrino says. “I feel empowered. I know how to behave from here on out.” Here we have the key to his difficult wisdom, and the essence of this vivid and beguiling book. *

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