As a youngster growing up in East Northport, Peter Kaldheim would ride his bicycle past Gunther's Tap Room, a favorite hangout of Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac. It wasn't until years later that he would discover Kerouac's writing, notably his signature work "On the Road."
Nonetheless, Kerouac's influence can be felt throughout Kaldheim's memoir "Idiot Wind" (Canongate, $24), the no-holds-barred saga of his own trek cross country. But it was no smooth journey: Kaldheim's tale is marked by numerous bumps and detours from his addictions to alcohol and drugs, a prison stretch, hitchhiking for 18 days while eluding the coke dealer whom he owed thousands, and living at a flophouse in Portland, Oregon. His ultimate road to recovery led him back to Long Island, specifically Lindenhurst, where he now enjoys a much quieter life.
At its heart the book is a road-trip story, but Kaldheim also weaves in stories of his childhood, including his first job as a Newsday delivery boy from 1958 to 1963. "The route manager knew I was good at selling subscriptions and he would send me out to other areas after my route was done," Kaldheim says. One year, when his father was on strike, Kaldheim sold enough subscriptions to buy Christmas presents for his family, including a Bell & Howell camera for his father.
The book's title, which came from a Bob Dylan song, was a no-brainer for Kaldheim. "I'm a Bob Dylan fan, and that particular song has lines in it that meshed with the story I was trying to tell," says Kaldheim, 70. "Idiot wind was a stand-in for all the stupid mistakes I made."
Chief among them was his drinking, which started shortly after he graduated from Dartmouth College. He had majored in English and expected to have his first book published by the time he was 25. "I didn’t have more than 100 pages after five years," Kaldheim says. "Persistence was something that I lacked back then."
Instead of writing, he worked as a copy editor at a publishing house. His off hours were spent at watering holes in Greenwich Village, where he hobnobbed and learned to drink with the likes of Pete Hamill. "It was the next best thing to being a writer," he says.
Troubles with cocaine — both as a user and a dealer — sent him on a further downward spiral. In 1985, he was sentenced to six months at Rikers Island for selling a half-gram of cocaine to an undercover officer. Recalling those times, Kaldheim can't help but look back at the disastrous effects his actions had on his two marriages.
"The hardest part of writing the book was being honest about the way I’d treated the women I had been married to," he says. "My first marriage went down the tubes when I started hanging out in writers' bars. I got married again a few years later and my second wife died of a brain aneurysm. I was so messed up on coke, her family had to claim the body. I didn’t even go to the funeral."
He was forced to flee New York after bungling a drug deal that incurred both a heavy debt and the wrath of the small-time gangster on his trail. He spent 18 days thumbing rides before landing in Portland on his 38th birthday. Upon his arrival, he wrote a long letter to his friend Gerry Howard, a book editor at Doubleday, about his experiences on the road, and especially the generosity of strangers he encountered. "He raved about it and said I should expand it into a memoir," Kaldheim says. "That was in 1987. On Thanksgiving 2015, I finally got around to writing it."
He was sidetracked by his efforts to get his life back in order, including working as a chef at Montana State University. When his two brothers became ill in 2012, Kaldheim returned to Long Island to care for them. Both died within four days of each other. Afterward, he reconnected with Howard. "I had a good cry with him and at the end of the lunch, Gerry said 'this might be a good time to deal with your grief.' "
This time the words came out easily. "When I had tried to do the book earlier, I was having trouble reconnecting with the person I had been who had done so many embarrassing things," he says. "Now I was alone in the world. Who did I have to answer to? This time I was able to attack it."