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Posted on Jan 2, 2013

By Lauren B. Davis

“Sutton”
A book by J.R. Moehringer

Clearly, J.R. Moehringer hears voices. This is good news, because not only does he hear them, he writes in such a way that we hear them too. In “The Tender Bar,” Moehringer’s powerful memoir, the characters were both hilarious and heartbreaking. That 2005 book was impossible to put down, impossible to forget. So smitten was I with his writing, that I approached “Sutton” with a certain amount of trepidation. Could Moehringer possibly hit another one out of the park? I needn’t have worried. The man is a master of voices. Bar buzz. Gangster speak. Pillow talk. Prison patter. Reporter banter. It’s all wonderful.

On the surface, this is the story of a famous bank robber, but the book is more than a simple story about a man, no matter how intriguing that man may be. Funny, sad, thrilling and beautifully written, “Sutton” succeeds on multiple levels. 

First, it’s the rollicking good story of Willie Sutton (1901-1980)—bank robber, folk hero, heartbroken romantic, a man with an eighth-grade education who quoted poetry and read Dante, Plato, Kerouac, Ezra Pound and Tennyson. (Pound’s “Now you will come out of a confusion of people,” becomes a sort of chorus.) A man of contradictions, Sutton was opposed to violence, but lived in a violent world. He escaped prisons that were supposed to be impossible to escape from. He was pathologically loyal, and perhaps a pathological liar. He was called The Actor because of the elaborate disguises he wore during his bank heists. He robbed banks for more than three decades and the FBI put him on its first Most Wanted List. He was the “Babe Ruth” of bank robbers and finally pardoned on Christmas Eve in 1969, whereupon he was immediately corralled by a reporter and photographer who had worked out a deal with his lawyer to get the exclusive Willie Sutton story. In “The Tender Bar,” the characters’ relationships to one another and to the bar in which they passed their days and nights defined them. Here, it is New York City. It is a sort of New World “Ulysses,” with Ebbets Field, Staten Island’s Farm Colony, Times Square, the Fulton Ferry, the New York Public Library, etc., taking the place of Dublin’s landmarks. And there is a nod to James Joyce in the point of view: Each destination triggers a flood of memories for Sutton, and the reader is drawn into an ever-deepening well of recollections, impressions and sense details. The Reporter, the Photographer and Sutton spend the next 24 hours driving around New York City, visiting the pertinent landmarks of Sutton’s life. The story they get, however, may or may not be the “true” one. 

book cover

 

Sutton

By J.R. Moehringer

 

Hyperion, 352 pages

 

Buy the book

I do have one quibble, and I’m going to get it out of the way here. I had trouble believing a scene in which Sutton tries to break out of prison by slogging through a pipe filled with raw sewage. He swims in it, diving down so the filth slathers his head, hair and eyes. His mouth is full of it. I couldn’t help thinking he’d end up with the plague or, at the very least, e-coli, but he doesn’t even get a cold. Seemed a bit over the top and maybe the one false note. 

All right. That’s enough of that.

“Sutton’s” second level is meta-fiction. Story. Truth. Writing. Willie Sutton is a dissembler, a shape-shifter, as his nickname “The Actor” implies. But perhaps, Moehringer seems to say, none of us tell the complete truth, not even to ourselves. In one passage, Sutton finds work as a gardener for the wealthy Mr. Untermyer:

“Mr. Untermyer seems amused by Willie, intrigued by his stories about Irish Town, Sing Sing Dannemora, Eddie. When Willie runs out of real stories, he makes up new ones. In the middle of just such a story, a querulous look comes over Mr. Untermyer. Willie, he says, I think you’re a modern seanchai.

Willie, kneeling in the shadow of the Temple of Love, planting delphiniums, looks up. He can see the nymphs dancing behind Mr. Untermyer. My grandfather used to talk about the seanchai sir.

I don’t doubt it. Your grandfather was from Ireland of course.

Yes sir.

The seanchai was a holy man in Ireland. He made the long nights shorter. And he didn’t always care if his stories were true.

Is that bad?

Not necessarily. Truth has its place. In a courtroom, certainly. A boardroom. But in a story? I don’t know. I think truth is the listener. Truth is something the listener bestows on a story—or not. Though I wouldn’t recommend you try that argument on a wife or girlfriend.”

And so we are invited to listen to this story, even if it might not all be true. Later, when newspapers give Sutton the moniker “The Actor,” we are told:

“Willie doesn’t care for the nickname. It’s trivial, he thinks. Not to mention inaccurate. An actor is someone who plays at make-believe. An actor is someone who says lines that aren’t real, because they aren’t his. When Willie walks into a bank he’s not playing, he’s dead serious. He means, and owns, every word. … Willie reads that acting isn’t about what you say, it’s about what you don’t say, what you vividly withhold. The audience doesn’t want to know you; they want to feel that desire to know you. Since you never fully satisfy that desire, never come clean, acting is the opposite of confessing. Willie underlines this passage in pen.”

To see long excerpts from “Sutton” at Google Books, click here.

The same might be said for Sutton’s story, or rather the tale Moehringer imagines Sutton telling. It’s a clever and utterly seductive technique. Has Sutton, who wrote two conflicting memoirs, ever told the truth about himself? Did the reporter who wrote the article that inspired this novel tell the truth? Has Moehringer? As a reader, I get the sense that all these partial truths may point to a truth larger than any of the individual demi-truths, and that is a great pleasure.

But let’s not overlook the politics. The man Sutton works for is none other than Samuel Untermyer, special prosecutor, the scourge of America’s most notorious robber barons, who exposed the “skullduggery” of one banker after another, calling them to the stand and exposing them as “conspirators, liars, thieves.” We are told, “Over a span of several years, through a secret money trust, the bankers had hijacked the financial system. They’d appointed one another to the boards of their various banks and corporations, essentially merging them all into one secret superbank.” 

Sound familiar? Of course it does, and so when Sutton tells Untermyer he has served time for bank robbery and Untermyer responds, “What’s breaking into a bank compared with founding a bank?” the reader can’t help but chuckle. 

 


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