Willie Sutton was a thug with a fan club. He robbed banks at gunpoint. If a manager refused to open the safe, he would threaten to kill the tellers.
But, as J.R. Moehringer points out in “Sutton,” his fictionalized excursion through the criminal’s career from the 1930s through the 1950s, Willie was a “god in parts of Brooklyn.” Why? Because he had the sympathies of a public for whom the local lender was more Old Man Potter than George Bailey.
“Who the hell has a kind word to say for banks?” Moehringer has a reporter ask upon Sutton’s release from Attica prison. “They should not only let him out, they should give him the key to the city.”
Moehringer’s conceit is simple: On Christmas Eve of 1969 Sutton left prison for the last time. He spent the next day with a reporter and photographer driving around New York. Moehringer reconstructs that day, allowing his protagonist to look back on his life of crime.
The reliability of these memories comes into question at every turn. The picture is complicated more by Moehringer’s imaginative departures from the known facts of Sutton’s life.
Distortion and misrepresentation are central to Sutton’s life. Known as “The Actor,” he would pose as a police officer or delivery man to catch bank security off guard. He wrote (or co-wrote) two memoirs, which contradict each other on basic facts.
And he never said he robbed banks because “that’s where the money was.” In Moehringer’s telling, Sutton breaks the news about the apocryphal quote to his crestfallen reporter-escort, saying another journalist invented the line.
“If reporters weren’t making me out to be worse than I am,” he explains, “they were making me out to be better.”
But Moehringer’s Sutton embraces the legend, because it serves the robber’s ends. The more people think he’s a folk hero, the easier it is for him to pursue his chosen career without examining its moral implications.
“Thoughtful, sensitive, articulate, empathetic, an inspired storyteller and a determined self-mythologizer,” is how a prison psychiatrist describes him in the novel. “You’re also alarmingly -- what’s the word? Cunning.”
Moehringer’s Sutton is less a Robin Hood than a self- absorbed schemer. Some of the people in his life have names -- lovers, accomplices, Wingy the one-armed prostitute -- but most are known to us only by their function in Sutton’s life -- Brother, Reporter, Guard.
The distortions, elisions and fables pile up until Moehringer’s Sutton can no longer separate fact from fantasy, just as he has always had difficulty telling right from wrong.
This is not to say that the novel is all existential exploration. It’s also a jaunty trek through several New Yorks. Sutton is sprung from Attica after almost 20 years into a city that has changed “on a subatomic level,” where women wear miniskirts and men who visited the moon get tickertape parades. (Apollo 11 Astronaut Mike Collins was “one stone-cold wheelman,” Sutton tells his Christmas escorts.)
Moehringer takes us back to postwar Brooklyn, when the Dodgers ruled, back further to the heyday of Dutch Schultz and finally to the start of the last century, when dirt roads and blacksmiths were not uncommon sights in the County of Kings.
The author supplies enough geographic detail to let us follow Sutton on his Yuletide odyssey, as I did on the Web (Staten Island’s abandoned Farm Colony is especially haunting).
We marvel at the vast and protean metropolis and realize, as Sutton does, that New York “doesn’t care if you live or die, stay or go. But that -- that indifference, I guess you’d call it -- that’s half of what makes the town so goddamn beautiful.”
For all its bittersweet nostalgia, though, “Sutton” is very much a novel of today. After the biggest economic setback since the Great Depression, banks again are popular targets of scorn and suspicion. Moehringer’s Sutton in 1969 expresses an opinion that wouldn’t be out of place at an Occupy Wall Street rally today:
“Mark me down as a believer in free enterprise. But when a few greedy bastards make up the rules as they go, that ain’t free enterprise. It’s a grift.”
(Andrew Dunn is an editor at Bloomberg news. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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