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buried treasures

Emmett Grogan

The information age may not yet have completely killed mystique, but it has done the concept serious harm.

In 1978, when Bob Dylan dedicated his Street Legal album to the late Emmett Grogan, it was more than just a salute from a counterculture icon to a far less famous fellow traveller. It was one master of self-reinvention recognizing another. But reading Ringolevio: A Life Played for Keeps, Grogan's 1972 third-person autobiography (long lost and now revived by NYRB's impeccably discerning Classics imprint), a question raised by Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One rears its head again: Are such lives even possible in a world laid bare by Google and Facebook and Twitter?

The odyssey of the book itself, and how it got into one reader's hands, is a good case in point. As a teenage Dylan fan, when I saw that dedication (pretty much the only redeeming thing about Street Legal, by the way), it was a reminder of a name I'd first come across at random intervals in my older sister's back issues of Rolling Stone. At 12, intrigued by Ringolevio 's title - I may well have thought it had something to do with the Beatles; in fact, it refers to a no-holds-barred street game popular in the New York of Grogan's childhood - I snapped up a used paperback copy in a local Wee Book Inn.

I had read 100 pages or so, and, though sensing that it was all a little above my pre-pubescent head, was nonetheless engrossed. Then I forgot it on a bus, and for 30 years or so, despite intermittent attempts to track down another copy, that was that. Pre-Internet, and pre-reissue, there was simply no source.

Had I read as far as the period of Grogan's life for which he was legendary - his time as the secretive head of San Francisco's anarchist-philanthropist Diggers during the height of the hippie era - my subsequent years of infatuation with that time and place might never have happened. Grogan's account, told in crystal-clear prose bearing not the slightest trace of flower-power whimsy, is nothing if not demystifying. Though an NYC Irish street tough to the bone, Grogan still counted himself a part of the "generation utterly separated from their parents by the unbreachable gap of acid." As such, he couldn't help but feel compassion for the incoming hordes of Haight-Ashbury pilgrims, "thousands of young, foolish kids who fell for the Love Hoax and expected to live comfortably poor and take their place in the district's kingdom of love."

His response was to organize the daily serving of free food in a park, as well as a "Free Store" where the very notions of value and exchange would be tested on a daily basis. In these endeavours, he was adamant that anonymity was essential: He wanted no part of the personality-cult hucksterism he perceived in the likes of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Timothy Leary, and dismissed the epochal Human Be-In as no more than a "costume party" where the new hippie aristocracy could exploit the popular mood.

Such myth-busting may partly explain why Ringolevio failed to find a sizable audience on first publication; it was the early 1970s, and plenty of people still had a strong emotional investment in the ethos Grogan was dismantling. But those many non-readers also passed up on a first half - of the book and of Grogan's life - that was already epic in scope. A junkie at 12, an ex-con at 13, Grogan improbably won a scholarship to a prestigious private school, but decided he preferred robbing the Park Avenue homes of his classmates' parents.

That got him quite a stake together, until he got on the wrong side of some bigger thieves and fled to Europe, where for a time he lived like a real-life teenage version of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley, scamming various identities and even studying film in Rome. Black clouds formed there and he fled to Ireland, where he fell in with a faction of the IRA and helped blow up a couple of bridges. From there he went to pre-swinging London, where he dabbled in porn, attempted a last big heist, and once again fled just ahead of the law.

All this happened before Grogan was 22, and all is recounted in a voice - by turns self-effacingly hardboiled and self-promotingly swaggering - that places the author firmly in the American tradition of Twain, London, Hemingway and Kerouac, with a touch of Jean Genet reprobate criminal-as-poet thrown in for spice.

Back in the United States, Grogan got creative, avoiding the draft before washing up on the West Coast, where conditions proved perfect for him to attempt - whether consciously or not is never made clear - to make atonement for some of the more egregious acts of his past. One thing he could never quite shake was the allure of heroin, and in 1978, after a long wilderness period as a legend without a meaningful context, he was found dead in a subway car on the F line in Brooklyn, victim of a heart attack assumed to be drug-induced.

If he had managed to survive, he might well be a feted figure now, sort of a non-singing Dylan. The mere fact that he wrote Ringolevio, a book whose many jaw-dropping claims have been the subject of doubt and debate for decades, means he couldn't have been as averse to a possible shot of fame as he had always claimed.

Well, he didn't survive. But his myth and mystique now look set to run and run. Ringolevio makes the 1960s feel as vivid as this very moment, yet also impossibly, irretrievably distant. Can there ever be a life, or a life story, like Grogan's again? It's hard to imagine how.

Ian McGillis grew up in Edmonton and lives in Montreal. His debut novel, A Tourist's Guide to Glengarry, was a Globe and Mail Best Book of 2003. A follow-up is nearing completion.

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