From street-smart New York punk to West Coast hippie prankster: that?s how Emmett Grogan, who died in 1978, would like readers of his self-aggrandizing autobiography to remember him. But in the age of James Frey, we?re more likely to wonder how much of this wild tale is actually true. The first half of Grogan?s fantastic account — the childhood tale of Kenny Wisdom — beggars belief. Born in postwar Brooklyn in a tough neighborhood, he becomes a heroin addict at age 11, a Park Avenue burglar at 13, a runaway to Europe at 14, a murderer at 15, and, to cap it off, an IRA terrorist at 16. Women everywhere fall for his freckle-faced good looks, and jail time simply strengthens his will to get over. A scholarship to an elite Manhattan school helps him sharpen his wits, hone his basketball skills, and once again prove what a tough customer he can be. Along the way, Kenny picks up a stack of hip paperbacks and evolves into the legendary Emmett Grogan, best known among cultural historians as a co-founder of the Diggers, a quasi-anarchistic group who tried to undermine the System by giving stuff away for free-food, clothing, and lots of drugs. They accompanied this with disruptive of street theater, and often to the live soundtrack of the emerging San Francisco sound: the Dead, Janis, and Jefferson Airplane. This half of Grogan?s romp includes appearances by a full cast of ’60s characters, some celebrated (Dylan, Brautigan, leftover Beats), others mocked (Abbie Hoffman, Leary and Ram Dass, Jerry Rubin). In true post-Salinger fashion, Grogan reserves his harshest criticism for ?the phonies,? all those who exploit the scene for commercial gain. Whatever you feel about Grogan or the ’60s, his semi-apocryphal account is an unforgettable portrait of a strange time, an essential document of a tumultuous era.
About the Writer
Thomas DePietro, a former contributing editor of Kirkus Reviews, has also published in Commonweal, The Nation, and The New York Times Book Review. He recently edited Conversations with Don DeLillo, and his book on Kingsley Amis is forthcoming.