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Sutton by J. R. Moehringer

Sutton (2012)

by J. R. Moehringer

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Born on June 30, 1901 Willie “the Actor” Sutton was a notorious bank robber through the early part of the 1900’s. He died on November 02, 1980 after having spent more than half of his adult life in prison. He served time in several different penal institutions and managed dramatic escapes three times. Willie Sutton was a legend stealing more than $2 million during his dubious career. He became legendary mostly due to the fact that he never completed a robbery if a woman screamed or a baby cried and never hurt or killed anyone during his robberies. Willie was a gentleman thief, but also a smooth talker and a consummate liar so many versions of his escapades exist.

Mr. Moehringer begins his book on the day of Willie’s final release from Attica on Christmas Eve, 1969. Wanting an exclusive story “Reporter” and “Photographer” (Willie never can remember their names) are sent to get the exclusive story of the murder of Arnold Shuster, who recognized Willie on the subway, thereby sending him back to prison for the final time. Willie agrees to the interview but on his terms. He wants to visit the important places in his life in chronological order, finally getting to the scene of the Shuster shooting. Although it means traveling back and forth across the city of New York several times “Reporter” and “Photographer” agree. Each stop is a story told in Willie’s voice, an important event in his life, a memory sometimes sad and sometimes humorous.

Mr. Moehringer obviously did his research. I thoroughly enjoyed this book I wanted to know a little more about Willie Sutton, so did a little more reading about his life. I believe Mr. Moehringer waded through the various stories and factual accounts and wove them into his narrative. The book starts and ends on Christmas Eve of 1969, but the one night is filled with Willie’s memories of decades. Unfortunately the ending is bittersweet for both Willie and the reader.

This was my first read of 2013 and what a great way to start off the new year of reading. This is a five star book all the way. Mr. Moehringer does not go on to tell us about Willie’s life after his release, but my personal reading let me to believe that although he no longer robbed banks (???) and despite suffering from emphysema he still led a pretty interesting life. He became an advocate for prison reform, consulted with banks implementing anti-robbery techniques and even became a spokesperson for the New Britain Bank and Trust Company.
( )
  ChristineEllei | Jul 14, 2015 |
This is simply the perfect time in our nation's history to read this book. With the recent financial collapse and the big banks only getting bigger and less responsible - a story about one of the most prolific bank robbers who IS punished for stealing while the banks get off scot-free - is just simply compelling.

"People today don’t remember – the government doesn’t want us to remember. The Bank of the 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."

Willie Sutton. Willie the Actor. An infamous quote is attributed to him: "Why do you rob banks?" "Because that's where the money is." It's a great quote - but he denied ever saying it. (Although he did use it for the title of one of the two books he wrote later. In "Where the Money Was" - he says, "Why did I rob banks? Because I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I'd be out looking for the next job. But to me the money was the chips, that's all.")

This novel about Sutton was just fascinating. It was well written, well laid out...and was based on just an incredibly interesting character. "He was Henry Ford by way of John Dillinger – with dashes of Houdini and Picasso and Rasputin. The reporters know all about Sutton’s stylish clothes, his impish smile, his love of good books, the glint of devilment in his bright blue eyes, so blue that the FBI once described them in bulletins as azure. It’s the rare bank robber who moves the FBI to such lyricism."

Whether the story is taking place in the present (the Christmas Day Willie was released from jail) or in his past - the action, events, characters and descriptions are just so well done. They are vibrant without being overblown. The reader is made aware that the events are based on Willie's memories - and that they may be colored in the process. And the flavor of the times the story moves through - from the 1900's to the 1980's...is just so well delivered.

"Baseball is everything at Eastern State. It’s the best way of killing time, of forgetting time, and one of the few sources of triumph and manly pride. The six prison teams, therefore, play to win. Murderers pitch inside. Mob bosses crowd the plate. Arsonists steal home every chance they get. Things can get out of hand quickly. And yet every game also features a moment or two of pure calm. With each home run comes a tranquil pause, not just for the batter to round the bases, but for everyone else to stare in envy and wistfulness at the spot where the ball went over the wall."

When I finished this book (far too soon, it felt) - I was left feeling about the story the way one of the chroniclers of Willie's tale felt.

"Reporter admits to himself, driving from the steak house back to the hotel, that it’s a ridiculous hope. But no more ridiculous than being fond of a hardened, unrepentant felon. Then he corrects himself. He wasn’t fond in the usual sense of the word. He wouldn’t want to live in a world full of Willie Suttons. He’s simply not sure that he’d want to live in a world with no Willie Suttons." ( )
1 vote karieh | Dec 16, 2014 |
An imaginative story, almost entirely fictitious, of the bank robber Willie Sutton and why he robbed banks. hint: It wasn't exactly because that's where the money was. The story is quite sympathetic to Sutton, and sanitized I'm sure, and a good tale. However I dislike the artsy McCarthyesque desire not to use punctuation with dialog. It spoils my reading experience. When I am constantly distracted with: is he saying this? is he thinking this? who is saying this? is this a description of something or is he talking about it? well, just doesn't work for me no matter how good an author may think he is doing it. After a while I caught the rhythm of the style and it was easier to read but it still would lose me now and then and throw me out of the story while I re-read lines trying to figure things out.

Still, the story itself is very interesting and I enjoyed it. It is a compelling read and after a while one gets used to the lack of punctuation. One has to throw oneself back in time to Christmas Eve 1969 and Willie Sutton being given a pardon and release from Attica Correctional Facility in New York. There are, I think, a few anachronisms and glitches that poked me a little while reading. Willie rides around town on Christmas day with a photographer and reporter and as they visit places we get Willie's backstory. Willie has been a big book reader in prison and he knows a lot. He also has his own rich history. He seems unaware of changes in society in the 17 years he has been in prison, which could be expected, but curiously well aware of others. And, when Willie uses an expression like "same old same old" which I am pretty positive I had never heard by 1969, I scratched my head a little. At least Willie doesn't say "back in the day." OK, I'm nitpicking a little. But Willie steals a Chrysler, zooms away in the Chevy, then gets out of the Chrysler. Some magic there.

It's a really good story. It takes a while to get going, but once it does it is quite good. I was a little disappointed with the end game after the enjoyable trip to get there. Actually, I was a lot disappointed with the ending. We know that Willie doesn't tell a story the same way once, but the end makes one think that the entire story we have read is a complete delusion. And the end after the end just made no sense to me. So I still give the story 4 stars. It could have had the moon though with just a bit of spit and shine. ( )
  RBeffa | Jul 7, 2014 |
A highly romanticized a sympathetic telling of the story of Willie Sutton perhaps the most notorious bank robber in United States history. Willie is contacted by a reporter and photographer from a publication that has exclusive rights to interview late in his life after a seventeen year stint in prison (from which he was just released). He takes them in chronological order to a series of locations in New York City that were important in his life and he tells them part of his story at each spot. It is quite creatively done but this book is the rose colored glasses version of his life as the author has given him plenty of excuses for his bad behavior over the years. More perhaps about the authors wishes than reality. ( )
  muddyboy | Feb 20, 2014 |
Really fun historical fiction book. I think a good way to judge this genre is by level of disappointment felt that the story is not completely real. Really is a great story of a criminal life that was driven to love (not driven BY love, as some of the jacket comments would lead you to believe). If the book has a fault, in my opinion, it is that not enough time is spent relating the events of Willy's sult life outside of prison (what little there was). I had the chance to read this book in large chunks (irregular for me), and I do wonder if I would have liked it as much without this opportunity. Another possible insult, mostly because it makes it hard to recommend to certain readers is the non-use of quotation marks for dialogue--sort of a niche style that I'm not all together on board with, but perhaps works in this case, as it is historical fiction. ( )
  rdwhitenack | Jan 8, 2014 |
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"I have said it thrice: What I tell you three time is true." - Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark
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For Roger and Sloan Barnett, with love and gratitude
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p 288 At Willie's request Mad Dog also brings him "Peace of Soul", by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. ... [Willie's] been troubled about his soul, he longs for peace ... Whole passages seem addressed to him. Remorse, according to Sheen, is a sin. Remorse is prideful, self-centered. Judas felt remorse. Instead, Sheen says, we must emulate Peter - who felt not remorse but God-centered regret. Willie has no remorse, and some days he feels nothing but regret, so he's comforted. According to Sheen, his account with God is square.
p 330 How many of the contradictions in Sutton's memoirs, or in his mind, were willful, and how many were dementia. Reporter doesn't know. His current theory is that Sutton lived three separate lives. the one he remembered, the one he told people about, the one that really happened. Where those lives overlapped, no one can say, and God help anyone who tries. More than likely, Sutton himself didn't know.
p 331 All we can have of Sutton, of each other, is Interesting Narratives.
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A fictionalized account of Willie Sutton, one of the most notorious criminals in American history, traces his life, his doomed romance with his first love, and his surprise pardon on Christmas Eve in 1969.

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