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'Happiest Man in the World' captures a relentlessly unorthodox life

The Happiest Man in the World: An Account of the Life of Poppa Neutrino, By Alec Wilkinson, Random House, 301 pp., $24.95

Poppa Neutrino is a man teeming with ideas and ambitions, a fool to some and a marvel to others, a near-toothless chronic nomad and a transitory gambler, soldier, preacher, prophet, musician, husband, and father, among other things, and especially a raft-builder and sailor whose passions and identities dazzle and shift as he attacks (his word) each idea with actions yielding more ideas, creating a busy and dense reality something like the sentence you have just read.

Alec Wilkinson makes sense of it all in "The Happiest Man in the World " despite writing about someone whose "lavish and prodigal [life] does not easily compress." Wilkinson succeeds in part by skillfully shifting among his roles as a detached narrator, an interpreting presence, and a participating character.

He is an efficient chronicler for most of the book's first third, which covers Neutrino's first 71 years of various adventures, including a North Atlantic crossing in a raft made from found objects (or what some people would call "trash").

Neutrino knows how to take one thing and turn it into another: He started out as David Pearlman, changing his name at age 52. He is a person who generates reactions, and the usual responses to him -- doubt, disdain, curiosity, and awe -- may be shared by readers. But Wilkinson recognizes that "what appears to be the most random of lives is guided by an all but unyielding set of rules," including to never "face the storm passively." Wilkinson shows that with such a subject, a biographer needs to be both anchor and keel, to guide the way through a life "governed more by circles and wheels within wheels than by any linear design."

Wilkinson's technique echoes one of Neutrino's philosophies: that each situation in life can be understood as a triad. To Neutrino, life's first triad is to "participate, redirect, or leave," and he lives this triad again and again, changing his mind both from one goal to another (gambler, preacher, etc.) and between approaches within one pursuit (building one of his rafts, promoting an invented football play).

Similarly, a biography of a living person relies on a shifting triad that greatly influences the book's success: the life being revealed, the writer doing that work, and the contributions of the subject as source. Wilkinson -- and this book's readers -- benefit from Neutrino's "three deepest desires" triad of freedom, joy, and art, particularly the freedom that allows a candor that merges beautifully with Neutrino's unblinking self-awareness.

Neutrino, writes Wilkinson, "manipulat[es] the chaos he has embraced as his context." Wilkinson in turn manipulates that turmoil into sufficient order without losing its signature chaotic feel. As compelling as Neutrino's raft adventures are, it is something of a relief when Wilkinson has met Neutrino and can report and write as an observer and, eventually, participant. Instead of the episodic dizziness of one thing after another after another, we can focus (mostly) on one thing: Neutrino's determination to convince a professional, college, or high school football team to adopt an offensive play that he believes is unstoppable.

Wilkinson maintains that Neutrino pursues this particular goal because its purpose is to both "control" and "subvert" the "rules, textures, philosophies, and manners of the game." Neutrino says "I want to do this so the game of football is changed forever." They are on the same page, using different words, despite the fact that (as Neutrino puts it at another point) "your answer's in the middle. My answer is always to the extreme."

That Neutrino is addressing a familiar and common pursuit -- football -- makes this goal less fantastic yet no less affecting. This is not some unlikely journey that most people would not even consider; it is a harebrained -- or brilliant -- concept for a game that plays out on millions of televisions. That this unconventionally ambitious guy gets anywhere with this fleeting passion is, in its way, as remarkable as his Atlantic crossing.

By now, with Wilkinson more of an observing and interacting presence, the story comes alive in ways it did not before. The relationship between Wilkinson and his subject emerges as Neutrino continues to think, rethink, and attack, sometimes with amusing results: Concerned that some football players are wasting energy on the sideline, he asks one school's cheerleaders to "create a cheer about breathing."

When Neutrino inevitably loses interest in his football play, he sets out on yet another raft adventure, eventually a solo endeavor. The tension, fatigue, and determination surrounding the execution of this latest idea run deep: Neutrino is in his 70s, weaker physically yet, he believes, stronger mentally and emotionally. What he says about his vessel appears to apply to him as well: "That's the beauty thing about a raft. It can take a lot of damage."

By the end, Wilkinson the person has revealed to Neutrino how he feels about him, a fleeting, moving moment when the writer has given way to the person. Thanks to both Neutrino and Wilkinson, I understood. And I hoped not simply that Neutrino would succeed in his latest -- and seemingly most dangerous -- endeavor, but that he would be recognized and respected for who he is: a person who not only marches to the beat of a different drummer, but who made the drum and plays it loudly while leading you places you'd otherwise never go.

David Maloof is a writer in Belchertown. He can be reached at