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

ISBN: 1400065437
ISBN 13: 9781400065431
By: Alec Wilkinson

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About this book

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.

Reader's Thoughts


A bit too schizophrenic for me: "He did this, then he did this, oh then he went and did this again." I need more overarching ideas or narrative, though perhaps the structure of this book simply fits the man.


Very similar to Joseph Mitchell's 'Joe Gould's Secret'.....Anyone who enjoys sailing, football or characters should love it.

Jess B Baclesse

This is an interesting man who did interesting things. But there is a subtext that he probably did a lot of hurtful things yet that is never mentioned. A one side story.


Quite easily one of the best books I have ever read! Highly, highly recommended.Beautifully written, framed with perspective, yet unbiased. Always captivating and always revealing something valuable.Though at times remarkable to the point of being unbelievable, this biography is filled with truths and is food for the soul.


I was disappointed in reading The Happiest Man in the World to learn that it was not about me.I have felt certain, for some years now, that I have been followed off and on by a writer from the New Yorker who has been clandestinely observing and recording my life so that he could later filter it into gripping, affecting prose that would convincingly illuminate my unassuming, humble happiness.Instead, Alec Wilkinson had been tailing one David Pearlman, or Poppa Neutrino.And for the better. This compact telling of Neutrino’s many odd and divergent adventures makes for a remarkable biography; a biography distinctly detached from the traditional regurgitations of war heroes and world leaders and celebrities that often serve little more than to reinforce sentimental nostalgia and hackneyed myth.Similar to the way Schulz and Peanuts mustered a decent tale out of a boring man’s life, The Happiest Man in the World is an entirely fascinating read about a bum. Yes, a bum. Nothing against bums, forgive my predetermined assumption about the interest-quotient and book-worthiness of bums, but I’m not the one writing and publishing the glut of biographies on war heroes, world leaders, and celebrities.And Poppa Neutrino really isn’t a bum. Well, he is, but in reading The Happiest Man in the World, you’ll learn many other great phrases for these get-a-job-get-married-get-a-house-challenged individuals, like “modern day aborigine.” But for all intents and purposes, Neutrino is what most of us would consider a bum. He is often homeless, he panhandles and performs on the street for money, he hitchhikes, and salvages discarded materials. After reading this book, you will think twice before sticking your nose up at that bum on the corner asking you for loose change. He or she may very well be famously profiled in a book by a writer from the New Yorker detailing their diverse life of serving in the Korean War, becoming an ordained Baptist pastor, inventing football plays, working as a painter, musician, and in the circus, and sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in a home-made raft.Wilkinson’s brief encapsulation of Poppa Neutrino’s life is captivating. The chapters are short, the subject is enchanting, and the storytelling is detailed without being exhaustive and burdened by analysis and judgment. That’s not to say it is completely objective (God, wouldn’t that be boring!). Wilkinson does allow himself some sparse commentary, but mostly confines it to Chapter 1 of Part Two with observations like, “If he had in him a shred of materialism, I am persuaded that his cleverness, his resourcefulness, and his vitality would have made fortunes, and his story would be conventional.”Reading Wilkinson’s account of Neutrino, I got the feeling that he was committed to Neutrino the man and not just Neutrino the character of his next book that, please for the love of god I hope sells so I better try to make this really fucking interesting and spice it up with every last speck of dirt I have dug up on the guy. Wilkinson must have done some extensive interviewing and research, sure, but it is his subject, the interminable Poppa Neutrino, that shines through.So thank god for Alec Wilkinson having the good sense to get out of the goddamned way of such a singular person and doing us all a service by sharing Neutrino’s life in clean, simple sentences that are precise and refreshingly void of any elegiac schmaltziness.The Happiest Man in the World is damn fine storytelling.And I look forward to “The Happiest Woman in the World.”

Leah Brine

I really enjoyed this book and felt sad when I finished reading it as I wanted to hear more Poppa's adventures. The story of his life is captivating and the adventures he has and his way of life is spontaneous and fascinating. However I did become less enthusiastic with the long chapters about the football play he was teaching all the football teams. It's just something I don't find very interesting but after I dragged my feet through those long long chapters the book picked up again :)

Charles Thiesen

Fascinating and deep. Displays the character of a complex human being. Alec Wilkinson is a terrific writer. Papa Neutrino is an amazing human being.


While there were certainly some slow points to this book, overall it's a fun read. Poppa Neutrino in a mixed protagonist. In some ways, I really respect him. In other ways, I just shake my head and marvel at his stubbornness.


The story of Neutrino's life is full of adventure and eccentricity, but throughout the book, it feels like Wilkinson is grasping for a larger theme and failing to find one. At the end of this book, I don't feel like I learned anything new about Neutrino as a person, or what his experience means for anything else. I don't necessarily blame Wilkinson for that, because his subject is particularly inscrutable, but it left me underwhelmed.

Erin Jourdan

I sped through this book like as if I was riding a serious gale. Poppa Neutrino is even more fascinating than I imagined, and sweet and vulnerable too. A story of a genius oddball and his adventured, I just swallowed this book like the whale did to Jonah. My only criticism is that at times the author Wilkinson does insert his POV a little heavy-handedly interupting the thrust of the story. Perhpas some of his insights should have been left for a chapter at the end or perhaps an afterword. Love you Poppa, you sail on!


this is about the guy who made a raft from scrap wood and junk and sailed it across the atlantic. his whole life was nuts it turns out. in a good way. i like this book


Cheers to Poppa Neutrino -- a certain kind of hero!

Antony James

v enjoyable account of the strange, inspirational, itinerant life of Poppa Neutrino - philosopher, raft-builder, American Football strategist, ocean voyager.


Poppa Neutrino is a 74 year old man who has lived one of the most varied and interesting lifes ever put to paper. A drifter, artist, singer, creator of football plays, friend to dogs, and most importantly - in his mind, at least - a sailor. This book focuses on Poppa's aquatic quests to sail across various oceans in nothing more than a raft made out of found wood and gathered objects. The amazing thing is, his quests are successful. I had mixed feelings about this book. The author hung out with Poppa for quite a while and so was able to write stories about his youth and life on the road. But even though the book is about one person - Poppa Neutrino - I found much of it to be too sprawling and unfocused to really hold my attention. The narration bounces around to different time periods, discusses other attempts to sail rafts across oceans thoughout history, and then there's "part II" - a great, big digression where Poppa creates a new football play and apparently spends months trying to get various college football teams to adopt it when he should be setting sail. While I understand that this did indeed happen this way, in this order, honesty doesn't always make for the best telling of a story. Also, the narrator/author touches on some of his own life, likening himself to Poppa at points, and they seem to have a friendship that isn't really explored or explained. I think this book would have been better if it had focused more on that relationship, or gave more information about the author through the course of telling Poppa's story. While the style of writing was strong, clear and lucid, it was a little too removed and perhaps cold to really draw me in.

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