And this is, along with love, which we’ll talk about in a moment, the strongest of the many undercurrents in the novel. Time and again, Moehringer returns to the idea that since the founding of America, bankers have been a bit of a, ahem, problem. Perhaps more, he seems to say, than the honest, hardworking bank robber. He implies throughout the text that very little has changed since those early days.
“Everybody thinks the twenties were roaring. People getting rich overnight, all that F. Scott Fitzgerald bunk, but you boys listen to Willie, the decade started with a Depression and it ended with a Depression and there were plenty of white-knuckle days in between. A few people were living high, but everyone else was circling the drain. Times were hard, and you could see worse times dead ahead. A crash was coming, you could feel it. Of course, that’s always true. You want to be a prophet? You want to be fuckin Nostradamus? Predict a crash. You’ll never be wrong.”
“You’d have loved Untermyer, kid. He really spoke your language. Boy did he hate banks. He told me once that the Founding Fathers worried more about banks than they did the British. They knew that banks had been causing chaos, bringing empires to their knees, for centuries, all in the name of free enterprise.
Photographer snorts. Willie, are you—a Communist?
Fuck no kid. They asked that question once of Capone and he went crazy, almost brained somebody, and I know how he felt. Commie? I don’t want to give ninety percent of my nick to the government. Mark me down as a believer in small government. 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.”
“Photographer turns to face Reporter: Around the time Willie and this Marcus cat went on their rampage, the Bank of United States collapsed. People today don’t remember—the government doesn’t want us to remember. The Bank of United States just vaporized—with $100 million of people’s life savings. It’s still the biggest bank failure in the history of the world. Thousands of people were wiped out. And did any of those bank managers responsible go to the Big House like Willie did? No they did not. They sat around their country clubs laughing it up. Banks gamed the system, fucked society, caused the crash of 1929, drove the world into the abyss and paved the way for the rise of fascism—Stalin, Hitler—and they got despicably, disgustingly rich in the process. Banks. Banks did all that. So Willie only wanted to hurt banks, not people, which is why he became a folk hero. Am I right, Willie?
Antihero, Sutton mutters.
Is he right? Reporter asks Sutton.
Well now, Sutton says, it seems to me the Bank of United States actually stole $200 million of everybody’s money.”
“Kids today, Bartender says, they don’t understand how evil banks were back then. And everyone back then agreed they were evil, am I right? Editorials, cartoons, sermons, everywhere you looked someone was making the point that banks were bloodsuckers, that we needed to protect people from them. You remember, right?
And they’re still bloodsuckers, Bartender says, but nowadays bankers are respected. What the fuck happened?”
There’s even a little swipe at the age of social media, which of course this generation thinks it invented. Sutton is asked why his crew, after robbing a bank, always went straight to the newsstand:
“We wanted to read our reviews. We liked being famous. Most people suffer from a fear that they’re not really here, that they’re invisible. Being famous solves that. You must be here, it says so in the newspaper.” Or on Twitter. Or Facebook.
So we have the story of Willie Sutton, a bit of meta-fiction, and a political book of ideas, but what of love? Well, that’s there too. For Moehringer’s Willie Sutton is a sucker for love, a hard man with a soft heart who was felled by a society girl named Bess Endner, whose eyes were “pools of blue and gold. He feels the earth tip toward the moon.” When asked whether he robbed banks because he had a vendetta against them, Sutton replies:
“Honestly, kid, I hate to disillusion you, but for me it was more about Bess.
Can a man really rob thirty-seven banks to win one woman?
Better question kid: Is thirty-seven banks enough for some women?”
That moon Sutton feels the earth tip toward when he looks into Bess’ eyes, that “nocturnal predominance” as James Joyce calls it, becomes a recurring symbol of that which is inescapably alluring and utterly out of reach. When Sutton is first released from prison and the gaggle of reporters waiting for him asks how he feels, or whether he’ll ever rob another bank, he tells them to look up at the full moon:
“Three dozen reporters and two dozen civilians and one archcriminal look up at the night sky. The first time Sutton has seen the moon, face-to-face, in seventeen years—it takes his breath.”
In prison, inmates watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon. Sutton is entranced and obsessed by this. It is, he says, the ultimate escape, because “the astronauts were in one-sixth gravity. In the joint you feel like gravity is six times stronger.”
When Sutton takes Bess to Coney Island to stay at the Half-Moon Hotel, he sees her walking toward him, looking “as if she rode the moon out of the sea.”
Indeed, references to the moon abound, and it is the moon that Moehringer returns to at the end of the novel, when The Reporter recalls Sutton talking about the moon, and how one of the astronauts had fallen hopelessly in love with it: “Imagine how fuckin lonely you have to be to fall in love with the moon?”
We don’t have to imagine. Moehringer has made us experience it.
Read “Sutton” as a political novel, a love story, a meta-fiction or a good, old-fashioned yarn—but read it. In fact, read it over and over; I suspect you’ll find something new and worthwhile every time.