Was William Willis, who went rafting across the Pacific alone in 1954, the avatar of today’s extreme sports aficionados—or simply out of his mind?
Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 Pacific crossing in a balsa raft, immortalized in his classic documentary Kon-Tiki, inspired numerous imitators. In his first nonfiction foray, novelist Pearson (Glad News of the Natural World, 2005, etc.) refers to Heyerdahl and such subsequent transoceanic rafters as Alain Bombard, Eric de Bisschop and DeVere Baker, but his narrative concentrates mainly on the life and adventures of William Willis, who died in 1968 attempting a solo crossing of the Atlantic at age 75. The wonder is that he lived so long. German-born Willis began his seagoing life as a 15-year-old deck boy. He jumped ship in Texas two years later and spent nearly two decades roaming across America, in 1926 winding up in Manhattan and educating himself at the New York Public Library. Through the years, Willis held more than 50 jobs and authored books and poems all of which were rejected by publishers. In 1938, he traveled to the notorious Devil’s Island and successfully freed a prisoner, the son of his Manhattan landlady. This incident offered a preview of the impulsiveness, bad planning and almost criminal negligence that characterized Willis’s decision at age 60 to cross the Pacific on a raft, simply to see if he could do it. Miraculously, he did it twice. These voyages, during which everything but the result went wrong, form the heart of Pearson’s look at a man whose odd dietary notions, novel fitness regimen, frugal lifestyle and almost mystical belief made him a crackpot by most 1950s estimates.
Some readers will admire Willis’s courage; others will lament his foolhardiness. All will be vastly entertained.