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TBTS Reviews: Sutton

September 25, 2012

I’ve been waiting a good while to talk about this one, oh yes. I expect I’m not the only one. J. R. Moehringer, author of the bestselling memoir The Tender Bar, has turned his considerable talent toward fiction with Sutton, a biographical novel of legendary bank robber Willie “The Actor” Sutton. Rather than a straightforward recounting of Sutton’s life and deeds, Sutton’s story is told from the point of view of an old man looking back, using as its launchpad the only interview Sutton ever gave, taking place over one long night following an out-of-the-blue Christmas Eve pardon by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller in 1969. Going straight from Attica to the back of a reporter’s car on Christmas Day, Sutton takes his interviewer on a tour of Willie the Actor’s New York, dragging him on a zig-zag route back and forth over Manhattan and the boroughs, piecing together his life story as best as he can remember. What results is a rich, lively portrait of one man’s life and times, almost all of which plays out in Willie’s head rather than in any form the hapless unnamed journalist can actually use.

Moehringer has adopted a style befitting his subject. Terse, unadorned sentences, punchy dialogue, just enough noir to add flavor without saturating the story in Chandlerisms, and a strong sense of its roots, namely, in the Irish experience in the great cities of America at the beginning of the last century. Moehringer clearly loves his subject so much, in fact, that he can’t resist the occasional foray into caricature, seemingly out of sheer exuberance:

Everyone praises Armstrong and Aldrin, Sutton says. But the real hero on that moon shot was the third man, the Irishman in the backseat.

Photographer turns, gawks at Sutton. Mike Collins? He didn’t even set foot on the moon.

Exactly. Collins was in the space capsule all alone. While his partners were down there collecting rocks, Collins was manning the wheel. Seven times he circled the moon, solo. Imagine? He was completely out of radio contact. Couldn’t talk to his partners. Couldn’t talk to NASA. He was on the dark side of the moon, cut off from every living soul in the universe. If he panicked, if he fucked up, if he pushed the wrong button, he’d strand Armstrong and Aldrin. Or if they did something wrong, if their lunar car broke down, if they couldn’t restart the thing, if they couldn’t blast off and reconnect with Collins fifty miles above the moon, he’d have to head back to earth all by himself. Leave his partners to die. Slowly running out of air. While watching earth in the distance. It was such a real possibility, Collins returning to earth by himself, that Nixon wrote up a speech to the nation. Collins – now that’s a stone-cold wheelman. That’s the guy you want sitting at the wheel of a gassed-up Ford while you’re inside a bank.

Is that over the top? Most likely. Should Moehringer be able to get away with something like that? Probably not. And yet he presents the story so well and in such vivid, convincing detail that like Willie the Actor himself, not only does he get away with it every time, you’re glad he does. At its best – which is often – Sutton transports you to its time and place and gives you a clear picture of a world where the banks and the people are not just at odds, they’re at war, where Public Enemy Number One isn’t anyone on J. Edgar Hoover’s list but the nameless, faceless, heedless men of Wall Street. Funny how times don’t change much.

Willie the Actor wasn’t just a criminal. He was, for decades, a folk hero, a man of the people, a gentleman bandit who, for a long time, had the hearts and minds of the people on his side, until an innocent man wound up dead and turned the public against him. Moehringer captures Sutton’s evolution into a higher order of criminal perfectly, presenting him as a plausible thinking man’s bandit for whom robbery became an art, while at the same time declining to make him a sainted figure. As Willie spins out his story, it becomes clear that Willie isn’t the most reliable narrator in the world. His story winds back in on itself. It has holes, it has gaps, it has inconsistencies. By the time it’s all told, the nameless reporter can only conclude “Sutton lived three separate lives. The one he remembered, the one he told people about, the one that really happened. Where those lives overlapped, no one can say, and no one should say. More than likely, Sutton himself didn’t know.” And it’s in that assessment that Moehringer takes Willie the folk hero, Willie the criminal, Willie the Actor, Willie the lovestruck kid and Willie the closemouthed Irish tough, and makes all these into Willie Sutton the man, flawed, noble, and above all, interesting.

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