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Review: How $1 mil ruined a man's life

By L.D. Meagher

"Finder's Keepers"
By Mark Bowden
Atlantic Monthly Press
208 pages

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(CNN) -- The lure of sudden riches is an irresistible magnet. It draws armies of people to casinos, riverboats and state lotteries every day.

Most of them don't get rich. Indeed, most of them go away poorer. That doesn't stop them from doing it again tomorrow, or next week, or on next year's vacation.

Anyone who has ever pulled a slot machine handle or scratched off a lottery ticket might envy Joey Coyle. He had a fortune fall into his hands, almost literally. But before anyone starts wishing for that kind of fortune, read "Finder's Keepers." It might change envy into pity.

Journalist Mark Bowden, author of "Black Hawk Down," was a Philadelphia newspaper reporter on February 26, 1981, the day a million dollars fell off the back of an armored truck. He has reconstructed the story of how Joey Coyle came into possession of the money, and what happened to it.

Learning a 'hard truth'

Joey picked the cash up off the street just moments before the armored car returned to look for it. He took the money home and dumped it on his bed.

"Staring at all the green bundles," Bowden writes, "Joey felt suddenly overwhelmed by the challenge of hanging onto it. The idea of finding that much money was proving to be more thrilling than the actual experience, much as the highs he got by shooting speed had long ago stopped living up to his expectations. The hard truth about life, which most people learned but that Joey had not, was that things had to be earned to be fully enjoyed. Success, accomplishment, the admiration of the world -- these were all things that could not be faked, or purchased with a needle or a windfall."

So Joey, the slightly goofball, drug-addicted unemployed dockworker, embarks on a weeklong sojourn made up of equal parts euphoria and paranoia. He swears everyone he tells about his good fortune to secrecy. And he tells everyone -- bartenders and casual friends and his school-age niece.

When it's over, the money is gone and Joey is in jail.

Talking too much

His story has been told in the movie "Money for Nothing," which was based on a series of articles Bowden wrote in the middle 1980s. But the film bears little relation to the reality.

Joey Coyle, who became something of an urban legend in Philadelphia, is, in the end, a faintly pathetic figure. He can't keep his mouth shut. He has no idea what he should do with the money, aside from trying to keep from giving it back. And his amphetamine-addled mind is no match for the authorities closing in on him.

Bowden offers "Finder's Keepers" as a way to set the record straight. He presents Joey Coyle's story sympathetically, but without whitewashing the facts. The hapless young man's own actions indict him -- not as a lawbreaker, though he did break the law by trying to keep the money -- but instead for what he was before a million dollars fell into his lap, and what he was after the cash was gone and the spotlight faded. A loser.

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