Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Wednesday, August 15, 2012: Maximum Shelf: Sutton

Hyperion: Sutton by J.R. Moehringer

Hyperion: Sutton by J.R. Moehringer

Hyperion: Sutton by J.R. Moehringer

Hyperion: The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer


by J.R. Moehringer

A line from Paul McCartney's "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" slyly tells us that "she could steal but she could not rob." Is there a difference? Some say that the upper classes steal, while the lower classes rob, say, banks--which is what Willie Sutton (1901-1980) did, over and over again. In Sutton, a captivating and compelling biographical novel, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist J.R. Moehringer has "captured" the life and career of the celebrated bank robber with style, insight and panache.

Like Moehringer's bestselling memoir, The Tender Bar, Sutton is a poignant book, exploring the lives of regular, ordinary folks. Willie was a poor, lower-class, regular New York City guy who became extraordinary. Early on, a reporter mentions Norman Mailer, along with his $1-million advance to write a book about the moon landing, an event that figures prominently throughout this novel: "The guy writes history as fiction, fiction as history." One could say the same about Moehringer, who tells us Sutton "contains real people and real events set in a mostly accurate timeline." His Willie Sutton is not the real one--then again, "I would argue that he's no more fictional than the real one was." Willie tells his own story in his own voice, which gives the book its tone--gently brusque and sarcastic, witty and laconic. And my, oh my, what a story it is.

It all starts Christmas Eve 1969, outside the Attica Correctional facility. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller--a former banker--has commuted the sentence of Willie Sutton, now 68, perhaps the most famous bank robber of the 20th century. In his heyday "he was the face of American crime," one of the few to make the leap from public enemy to folk hero. Even back then, America's opinion of him was tempered by its low opinion of banks. Willie was "smarter" then Machine Gun Kelly, "saner" than Pretty Boy Floyd, "more likable" than Legs Diamond, more "peaceable" than Dutch Schultz, and more "romantic" than Bonnie and Clyde. He saw bank robbery as high art and went about it with an artist's single-minded zeal. He was creative, innovative and tenacious; "Henry Ford by way of John Dillinger." He packs up his few possessions and his precious books: Plato, Dante, Pound, Kerouac. A line from Jack "saved Sutton on many long nights": "Prison is where you give yourself permission to live." And poetry: he memorized lines from many poems, and in dark cells over the years he "recites them, sings them, screams them at the walls."

Before he starts his new life, he agrees to spend Christmas Day with a Newsday reporter and a photographer; the paper has an exclusive. After taking a flight (his first ever) into Manhattan, he'll give them the special Sutton tourist trip around New York, stopping at places on the map that were important in his life and career. They constantly remind him about their big scoop--when Willie, who never hurt anyone, never shot anyone, will take them to the spot where, in '52, stories say, he killed Arnold Schuster, who had turned him in. (Willie didn't kill him. A Mafia boss disliked Schuster because he was a rat, and had him taken down by a hit man.)

Moehringer's tale unfolds in a back-and-forth manner, as each location, or comments and questions from the reporters, triggers Willie's memory. We go back in time to the beginning, to Gold Street, Irish Town, Brooklyn. Driving into his old neighborhood, Willie notices a new movie advertised on the marquee: Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.

A prison shrink once told tell Willie: "Your brothers were monsters. Your sister was invisible. Your parents were cold." Those years were tough for everyone. Poverty ran rampant. In 1916, Willie quit school and got his first job--in a bank. It didn't last. Soon after, a major event in Willie's life occurs--he meets wealthy Bess Endner and falls in love. After their first kiss "he knows... his future is being reshaped." Like most things in Willie's life, it's short-lived. The young lovers try to escape Bess's father but are caught, and "like a scraped freighter, there's no putting his broken heart back together." He then mets Doc, a safecracker, and he signs up: "He likes everything about it. He tells himself he shouldn't. But he does." Again, it doesn't last. Arrested, Sutton is sent to Sing Sing. Released in '27, he feels "as if the world is a book he set down years ago." And so it goes. Over the years, Sutton and his various gangs robbed more than 100 banks. He spent time in many prisons, and escaped from nearly all of them. He invented the disguise, to get into banks, and became famous as Willie the Actor. And then, finally, in '69, freedom comes on a cold December evening.

Sutton is a terrific book. Don't be put off by the subject matter. Saying Sutton is a novel about bank robbing is like saying The World According to Garp is a novel about wrestling. They are, of course, but they're also about so much more. So "break into" Sutton and discover the riches it holds! --Tom Lavoie

Hyperion, $27.99, hardcover, 9781401323141, September 25, 2012

Hyperion: The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer

J.R. Moehringer: Are Bank Robbers Worse Than Bankers?

J.R. Moehringer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 2000, is a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. He is the author of the bestselling The Tender Bar and co-author of Open by Andre Agassi.

Where did the idea for a novel about the bank robber Willie Sutton come from, and why did you feel you had to write it?

During the global financial meltdown of 2008 I was watching the news each day with a growing sense of anger. At first the anger was amorphous, but soon it crystallized around banks. The world was ending and banks seemed the clear culprits, and I wanted to write about my outrage at these reckless, soulless banks. But, alas, I'm not Michael Lewis. So I started thinking about other ways to write about banks, which got me thinking about other people who hate banks as much as I do, which got me thinking about bank robbers, which got me thinking about the most successful bank robber in American history--Willie Sutton. Then I did some research and devoured both of Sutton's memoirs and discovered that a love gone wrong had led him into a life of crime. That's when I was really hooked.

How much did you research Sutton's life and career before you could start writing?

I visited just about every major landmark in Sutton's life. The street where he was born, the place where he died, the scenes of his biggest heists. I sat in a cell exactly like his cell at Eastern State Penitentiary. I pored through thousands of FBI files. I dug through hundreds of old police files, including boxes that had been lost for decades. I sifted through countless old newspapers and magazines and all but memorized the transcript from one of his trials. I collected old maps, photos, letters, postcards, memorabilia. I talked to his granddaughter and the daughter of his ghostwriter. The research just went on and on and it didn't really stop until the day the book went to the printer.

Did you have books like In Cold Blood or Hunter Thompson's Hell's Angels in mind when you began this novel?

I was more under the spell of Hemingway's classic short story "The Killers," and of course William Kennedy's Legs, and James Cain's Double Indemnity, and a small gem of a novel called Thieves Like Us. Also, Edward Hopper paintings--I looked at them often while writing.

How did you decide the issues of point of view, structure and tone?

Once I discovered that Sutton was finally pardoned and released for good on Christmas Eve, 1969, and that he was then immediately swept up by two scoop-happy journalists and essentially held hostage for the next 24 hours, I had my structure. And my point of view. As a journalist I could imagine the tension in that car. And I just really liked the idea of sweeping back and forth from that car, that era, to Willie's life, as he remembered it.

How much is fact, how much is fiction?

That's a hard thing to quantify. I can't say the book is 50% fact and 50% fiction, or 60-40 or 70-30. The best way I can express it: readers will be shocked to learn how many twists of the plot, how many seemingly impossible and random details, are exactly true.

Reporters figure prominently in the novel. Being a reporter yourself, did you enjoy writing about your own profession?

I did. I think the whole process of interviewing someone is fascinating, and frustrating, and fraught with peril. So I frequently write about the process, in both fiction and journalism.

Did your opinion of criminals and prisons change because of this book?

Since I have a touch of claustrophobia and few things terrify me more than the idea of being locked in a cell, my feeling about prisons didn't change, it only deepened. As for criminals, I'm not an apologist for people who break the law. I certainly don't approve of Sutton's crimes, and this book doesn't gloss them or glamorize them. I just wanted to look at the tangle of bad decisions and wrong impulses and psychological wounds that might lay behind his crimes. More, I wanted to ask the question: Are bank robbers any worse than bankers who ruin the world every few decades? Why do bank robbers go to jail for 50 years while bankers get golden parachutes?

How much did the writing of your memoir, The Tender Bar,  influence the writing of this book?

A great deal. Helping Andre Agassi with his memoir, Open, was pivotal, too. As a memoirist, as a ghostwriter, I felt that I was able to read between the lines of Sutton's memoirs, that I had a few privileged glimpses of the real Sutton. Behind all the bluster and blarney, I could feel when he was telling the truth and when he wasn't, and I could tell when his ghostwriters were missing something.

In the end, has your opinion of Willie changed from what it was when you began the novel?

No, because the real Willie Sutton is ultimately unknowable. That's the conclusion I reached even before I finished my research and began to write. I don't have an opinion of the real Willie Sutton; I have an opinion of the Willie Sutton in my novel. He's a good friend, and I'll miss him, but he's a synthesis of the real Sutton and the Sutton that emerged from my subconscious.

After a memoir and a novel, what's next?

I'm writing another novel. But it's way too early to talk about.

photo: ABC Photography/Donna Svennevik

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