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.
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.