Thursday, March 7, 2013

Sutton: Myth Meets Memory

For most readers, there are a handful of writers who could write treatises on advanced paint-drying or introductory grass-growing or intermediate shirt-wearing, and you'd still be riveted. For me, J.R. Moehringer is one of those writers. I've loved his journalism, his memoir, and his not-so-secretly ghost written autobiography for Andre Agassi.

Sutton, about real-life bank robber extraordinaire Willie "The Actor" Sutton, who stole more than $2 million over a 30-year career, is Moehringer's first novel. And it's just as fun to read as the rest of his stuff.

The story begins with Sutton's release from jail on Christmas Eve, 1969. Sutton agrees to tell his life story to a young journalist, and lays out a plan to visit all the important New York sites of his life over the course of one day. So we flash between the story of Sutton traveling around New York with the journalist and a photographer, and these actual important events — his poor childhood in Brooklyn, falling in love with a girl named Bess, the hopelessness during the early 1920s that led him to rob his first banks, and a series of arrests and jailbreaks.

Beyond just the straight smash-and-grab fun of this story, there are two other notable aspects. First, Willie Sutton is a sentimental cat, constantly reminiscing about places and people. And so that leads into par of the point of the novel: Asking readers to question how much we can trust his memory of events, and, by extension, how much we can trust events as they're laid down on the page by Moehringer. That's not to say Moehringer sets out to tell the story unreliably— it just means that the delineation of myth and memory is often not a solid line.

As well, after Sutton is put in jail for the last time in 1952, he briefly becomes kind of a folk hero in New York. (When asked why he robbed banks, he supposedly unleashed the famous line: "Because that's where the money is.") He spent his life "exacting revenge" on the evil, unethical banks that caused a vicious cycle of economic collapse and recovery. There's certainly a nod towards modern times in the way Moehringer portrays the banks and the catastrophe they create for the "common" folk.

Finally, if Moehringer's goal is to make a criminal likeable, he certainly succeeds — and not the least because Sutton is a bookworm. It's maybe a pander to readers, but I still really dug this detail. In his first stay in jail, he meets a former newspaper editor named Chapin who explains to him the value of books. I absolute love these lines:

Sutton: "I love to read sir. I always have. But when I walk into a library or bookshop, I get overwhelmed. I don't know where to start.
Chapin: "Start anywhere."
Sutton: "How do I know what's worth my time and what's a waste?"
Chapin: "None of it is a waste. Any book is better than no book. Slowly, surely, one will lead you to another, which will lead you to the best. Do you want to spend your life planting roses with me?"
Sutton: "No sir."
Chapin: "Then—books. It's that simple. A book is the only escape from this fallen world. Aside from death." 
There's a bit of trick at the end of this novel — harkening back to the myth vs. memory theme —and it's my least favorite part of this story. But overall, if you're looking for an immensely well-written, fun-to-read fictional biographical novel, Sutton is just the thing.


  1. This might just be right up my alley. I LOVED The Tender Bar. LOVED. I didn't know that he was the ghostwriter for the Agassi book. (I liked that book a lot too!) Huh. You learn something new every day. Fab review!

    1. Thanks - if you LOVED those two, you'll definitely enjoy SUTTON, too.

  2. Well, how can you hate a fellow who loves to read?