By Lauren B. Davis
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.
By J.R. Moehringer
Hyperion, 352 pages
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.
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.
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.