Book Talk: *Sutton*, by J.R. Moehringer

J.R. Moehringer (Facebook) (Twitter) (Goodreads)
Hyperion (September 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 1401323146 / 9781401323141)
Fiction (20th-century historical), 352 pages
Source: ARC received at Book Expo America 2012
Reason for reading: Review copy/personal interest

Opening lines: “He’s writing when they come for him.
“He’s sitting at his metal desk, bent over a yellow legal pad, talking to himself, and to her–as always, to her. So he doesn’t notice them standing at his door. Until they run their batons along the bars.
“He looks up, adjusts his large scuffed eyeglasses, the bridge mended many times with Scotch tape. Two guards, side by side, the left one soft and fat and pale, as if made from Crisco, the right one tall and scrawny and with a birthmark like a penny on his right cheek.
“Left Guard hitches up his belt. On your feet, Sutton. Admin wants you.
“Sutton stands.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website:
Born in the squalid Irish slums of Brooklyn, in the first year of the twentieth century, Willie Sutton came of age at a time when banks were out of control. If they weren’t taking brazen risks, causing millions to lose their jobs and homes, they were shamelessly seeking bailouts. Trapped in a cycle of bank panics, depressions and soaring unemployment, Sutton saw only one way out, only one way to win the girl of his dreams. 

So began the career of America’s most successful bank robber. Over three decades Sutton became so good at breaking into banks, and such a master at breaking out of prisons, police called him one of the most dangerous men in New York, and the FBI put him on its first-ever Most Wanted List. 

But the public rooted for Sutton. He never fired a shot, after all, and his victims were merely those bloodsucking banks. When he was finally caught for good in 1952, crowds surrounded the jail and chanted his name. 

Blending vast research with vivid imagination, Pulitzer Prize-winner J.R. Moehringer brings Willie Sutton blazing back to life. In Moehringer’s retelling, it was more than need or rage at society that drove Sutton. It was one unforgettable woman. In all Sutton’s crimes and confinements, his first love (and first accomplice) was never far from his thoughts. And when Sutton finally walked free—a surprise pardon on Christmas Eve, 1969—he immediately set out to find her.

Comments: When I arrived at the second of the two Book and Author Breakfasts I attended at BEA 2012, I was very pleased to find a galley of Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue at my chair–hopes of obtaining one were my primary reason for buying a ticket to this event, where he would be one of the three speakers. I was somewhat indifferent to the ARC of journalist J.R. Moehringer’s debut novel, Sutton, that was also waiting for me–until I heard him talk about it. Unless it’s for a tour or a paid review, I don’t usually read ARCs too far in advance of publication date, and I’ve been trying to make time for this one since it came out in September. I just finished it a couple of days ago. (I still haven’t gotten to Telegraph Avenue, however…)

Making celebrities out of people whose deeds aren’t exactly things to celebrate is well-established American pastime, and for several decades through the mid-20th century, bank robber Willie Sutton was one of the biggest. A master of disguise dubbed “The Actor” by the press, Sutton learned his “trade” on jewelry-store jobs, but soon moved on to robbing banks because–in one of those quotes long-attributed to someone who may or may not actually have said it–”that’s where the money was.” In an era of frequent financial depressions–the “Great” one of the 1930s was preceded by several smaller ones earlier in the century–banks were not popular institutions with beleaguered average Americans. But Sutton’s success in undermining them, combined with his reluctance to use violence in doing it, made him quite popular. However, in Moehringer’s take on Sutton’s story, it wasn’t all about the money; he really did it (mostly) for love.

Framed by the day of Sutton’s release from New York’s Attica State Prison–Christmas 1969–which he spent in the company of a reporter and a photographer, traveling back and forth throughout New York City on a tour of his personal history, most of Sutton is told in flashback. Largely self-educated through his love of books, Willie portrays himself as a methodical thinker and careful planner (except, perhaps, in selecting his partners in crime), driven by tough economic times and lack of schooling into the only “career” path that offered the potential means to win the lovely and well-off Bess Endner. If popular acclaim for taking on–or, rather, from–those bloodsucking bankers, jars of cash buried all over New York City, and a spot at the top of the FBI’s very first Ten Most Wanted list are any measures, he was quite a success at his job.

Sutton wasn’t a Robin Hood–he “robbed from the rich,” yes, but didn’t exactly redistribute the wealth–but his activities were born of a common resentment of the financial markets and the effects of their boom-and-bust machinations on the working classes. Nearly a century later, we’re again living under conditions similar to those that spawned his criminal career–bank failures, unemployment, property loss–and those similarities suggested to Moehringer that this antihero’s story might resonate with a new audience.

It helps that it’s a fast-moving, fast-talking narrative researched and related by a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. The book has some stylistic quirks–most notably the lack of quotation marks in dialogue and use of present tense throughout–that some readers may find bothersome, but didn’t bother me; I actually found they enhanced the book’s impact. That said, Sutton is historical fiction and not biography, and Willie Sutton may not be an entirely reliable narrator–but he’s got a heck of a story, and I was thoroughly drawn into it. They don’t make bank-robbing antiheroes like that any more.

Rating: 4 of 5
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