Idiot Wind

Peter Kaldheim

Canongate, £14.99

In 1987, Peter Kaldheim bedded down in a palm grove next to Interstate 10 on the outskirts of Jacksonville, Florida. He hadn’t slept for 36 hours and didn’t have a nickel to his name. Lying under the stars, he remembered that as a boy his father had refused to let him camp in the garden. "If you want to sleep outside, he’d told me, go be a bum."

Now, in his mid-thirties, Kaldheim was a bum. He had not decided to be one; he was on the run from a New York drug dealer called Billy Bats, to whom he owed thousands of dollars in cocaine debts. Somewhere beyond the horizon he hoped to find a new life for himself. It just so happens Kaldheim had courted the life of the vagabond for some time. A reader of Kerouac and Orwell, he had second-hand knowledge of the pleasures, the hardships and the sorrows of being on the road.

Kaldheim’s account of his tramp across America is the retrospective story of how he went from Ivy League graduate to penniless cocaine addict and convicted drug dealer and an education in how the homeless itinerants of America survive day-to-day, meal-to-meal. Admirably, he is careful to blame only himself for his fall from grace. The title, Idiot Wind, is taken from the Bob Dylan song of the same name and refers to what his old "Greek philosophy professor would call akrasia, a weakness of will that allows one to act against one’s better judgement."

The misery memoir aspect of this book might be necessary to understand Kaldheim’s psychological journey, but it is his depiction of hobo life that make this such a fascinating read. It deserves a place among other books of its ilk, like WH Davies’ Autobiography of a Supertramp or Ted Conover’s Rolling Nowhere. In his travels down to Florida, across the Deep South and up into the northwest, Kaldheim soon learns about "the brotherhood of the road". Zeke, an idea old hitchhiker he meets, sums up this system of mutual support among the homeless: "you give when you can, and you take when you can’t."

Zeke is only one of a handful of colourful eccentrics who are only too happy to give Kaldheim advice. There’s a young man called Kalvin, with whom he hitchhikes across the Bible Belt. Kalvin tells him to draw crucifixes on his cardboard sign. Sometimes, when you’re desperate, advertising yourself as someone you aren’t is the only way to get where you’re going. A couple of friends teach him how to hop a freight train without getting his leg torn off. Then there is John in Portland, who shows him which missions to get his food from, where the plasma centre is, how to register for social security and – of crucial importance – the location of the local library.

When you’re homeless, one of the few things you have in surplus is time; there’s just too much of it, especially when you’re lying in a 50-bed hostel and can’t sleep because of the night terrors of your fellow bums. Libraries have always been a friend to the poor. When he has hours to kill, Kaldheim heads for the local branch to dry out his clothes, rest his blistered feet and feed his imagination. One wonders how many other people who frequented the Gospel Mission in Portland in the 1980s also read Theophrastus whilst standing in the lunch queue.

Kaldheim’s literary bent means he can easily reach for an apposite quote to sum up any feeling or situation. A child of the Sixties, his reading of Fredrich Nietzsche, for example, tells him something about hedonism: "the mother of dissipation is not joy, but joylessness". As such, he is a writer who knows the dangers of idealism and tempers his romance of the road with some brutal reality. On skid row, Kaldheim tells everyone he meets he is a writer; this is an attempt to retain some dignity and self-worth, but it is partly a truth: he keeps notes of his wanderings in an empty Wonder Bread bag. Thirty odd years later, we can be grateful he kept hold of those notes, because they form the basis of this compelling and gutsy memoir.