J.R. Moehringer's 'Sutton': Bank robber's tale

"Sutton" by J.R. Moehringer (Hyperion, Sept. 2012)

"Sutton" by J.R. Moehringer (Hyperion, Sept. 2012) (Credit: Handout)

SUTTON, by J.R. Moehringer. Hyperion, 334 pp., $27.99.

What Hilary Mantel did for Thomas Cromwell and Paula McLain for Hadley Hemingway -- recasting one of history's supporting characters as a star -- J.R. Moehringer now does for bank robber Willie Sutton. From the late 1920s until his final arrest in 1952, Sutton stole about $2 million from an estimated 100 banks. Famous for his prison breakouts, his aversion to violence and his use of disguises, "Willie the Actor" was set free from Attica on Christmas Eve, 1969. Then 68 years old and in poor health, Sutton spent Christmas with a reporter and a photographer from the Daily News.

Moehringer takes what is known about Sutton and dreams it into the story of that Christmas Day. The Photographer and The Reporter, a proto-hippie and an uptight novice, ride the criminal around town in a Dodge Polara to revisit the sites of his life. The narration alternates between italicized sections with the men in the car and flashbacks conducted inside Willie's head. Often what is revealed in flashback is contradicted by Willie's comments to his media chauffeurs -- as befits a guy who wrote two memoirs that don't even agree on which banks he robbed.

Moehringer's Sutton is an intelligent and moral young man who emerges from a brutal childhood in Irish Brooklyn into a world that has little to offer him but a life of crime. He commits his first heist with Bess Endner, a rich girl he meets at Coney Island, robbing the safe at her father's warehouse. The lovers have an impossibly short time together on the lam before they are separated by arresting officers. The Reporter and Photographer are obsessed with getting Sutton to return to the location where Arnold Schuster was gunned down for fingering Sutton to the police. Willie is motivated only by the hope of reconnecting with Bess.

By the time of his release, Sutton has become a gentleman-gangster, quoting Hart Crane and Jack Kerouac, reminiscing about better days in tailored suits and four-star hotels. "People are already mad for diamonds, but people don't know the half. The haunting beauty of stolen diamonds in a black silk purse at two in the morning -- it's like being the first person to ever see the stars." Remorse is the last thing on his mind.

Moehringer's first book, a memoir of growing up in Manhasset called "The Tender Bar," was so deeply felt and beautifully written it's hard to imagine the person who could not appreciate it. "Sutton" is a more specialized flavor. What connects both works is the theme of disenfranchised masculinity: how a young man in a tough world learns to be both hard and soft, moral and reckless, a lover and a fighter. In an interview, Moehringer said he sees the historical novel as "fiction with training wheels."

His fans will want to see what happens when the training wheels come off.

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