December 10, 2008 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Books | December 10, 2008 |


This is the story of Poppa Neutrino. Poppa’s kind of a wild guy. He decided to sail a barge made of scrap across the Atlantic Ocean. He started up a group of nomads called the Salvation Navy, that traveled across the U.S., making money here and there and living off the land. He started up a band with a bunch of children and adults and scampered around Mexico and the U.S., playing for tips. He invented a football play. He’s lived a hell of a life, with multiple wives and children and adventures.

But that doesn’t mean I have to admire him.

Because that’s the entire point of The Happiest Man in the World. We’re supposed to admire Poppa Neutrino and his blissful means of scrapping around, doing whatever he wants, living hard and working hard, and never giving up. He’s unafraid to take chances, living by the seat of his pants, essentially assuming life will work itself out. It’s somewhere between The Secret and Tuesdays with Morrie, without being overly sentimental.

Wilkinson really loves interjecting himself into the story. You can almost feel like if it were a documentary, he’d be standing in frame with Neutrino, saying, “Wow. Can you believe this guy? Isn’t he so great?” I felt like he was trying to sell Neutrino to me on every page.

While its hard to deny that Neutrino has led a hell of a life, it’s not something that I need to read about. It would make for a fascinating magazine article, but not so much a biography. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m overly harsh. I write about myself, on this website and on my blog, assuming that my daily travails are fantastic. I don’t ever attempt to preach how people should live their lives, but Neutrino has started multiple churches.

He’s not perfect. He gets into fights. Often his wives or girlfriends can’t deal with being around him. He’s sort of this mystical figure, a Johnny Appleseed meets Neal Cassidy. He wanders around the world, living this vagabond life, making money by playing music or painting signs. His philosophies are sort of delivered in the prattling ramble. He’s the kind of crazy bearded guy you expect to see in coffeeshops, barefoot and dirty, expounding mantras to the art school dropouts he’s gathered about him.

I fully accept that this is the kind of book that can change people’s lives, and if it does, that’s awesome. It’s one of those rare brasswork keys from a mansion that might unlock deep parts of your soul. For me, that was discovering Martin McDonagh’s plays, reading Chuck Palahniuk, seeing my first Escher painting, discovering horror movie makeup. Little things like that speak to us and open us up to amazing things. For some people, this book might do that. It might encourage you to sell everything and drive cross country in a bus to California to paint on Venice Beach. For me, it was watching Kevin Smith and hearing the audio commentary on Swingers. It was writing my first play and having it performed in front of my friends in a kitchen that faced an open living room. It was the magic of a stage kiss or a stage fight.

It just wasn’t Poppa Neutrino. He didn’t inspire me. He frustrated me. I don’t find cherubic shamans enlightening. I find them to be strange. But maybe I just don’t dig on his wavelength. To each his own, I suppose.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. Details are here and the growing number of participants and their blogs are here.

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100 Books in One Year #33: The Happiest Man in the World by Alec Wilkinson

Cannonball Read / Brian Prisco

Books | December 10, 2008 | Comments ()



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