Paperback: The Happiest Man in the World, By Alec Wilkinson

Vintage £8.99
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The Independent Culture

This is an authorised, collaborative biography of a man who isn't famous or of historical importance, but is deserving of one nonetheless: Poppa Neutrino, whom the New Yorker journalist Alec Wilkinson first encountered busking on the streets of LA.

A 71-year-old, white-bearded man with only two remaining teeth, yet showing no signs of tiring of life, Poppa was raising money with which to travel to Arizona, in order to attend the state university's football training camp. At the same time, he was busy collecting discarded materials out of which to construct a raft, and making preparations to sail it across the Pacific. Which sounds quixotic and crazy, but then, no one had thought he'd make it across the Atlantic on his earlier raft of rubbish either.

He was born in San Francisco in 1933 and raised by his mother, an incorrigible gambler and a Baptist. His formative years were spent in gambling dens and tent revivals. At 15 he joined the army and indulged in a sustained period of drinking, fighting and all-round carousing. He spent time in jail and time in a seminary, then several years hitchhiking up and down Route 66, crossing paths with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, whose own escapades frankly pale by comparison. "His past," says Wilkinson, "is one long poem to the random life," and "Picaresque feebly describes his exploits."

It sounds like a tall story, though we're assured it isn't, and that anyway, you just couldn't make it up. More important, though, than the individual episodes of Poppa's life, is the spirit in which he's lived it. You wouldn't want to follow his example – his determined itinerancy often led him into hardship. But his beatnik-Buddhist personal philosophy and his commitment to live life – really live it – as if time and freedom are a person's most valuable belongings, make this as inspirational a biography as you could hope for.