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Sutton by J. R. Moehringer
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Sutton (original 2012; edition 2012)

by J. R. Moehringer

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3162235,147 (3.78)15
Member:moekane
Title:Sutton
Authors:J. R. Moehringer (Author)
Info:New York: Hyperion, ebook, 352p, File Size 1.4 MB, c. 2012.
Collections:Your library
Rating:****1/2
Tags:historical fiction, biography

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Sutton by J. R. Moehringer (2012)

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While J.R. Moehringer was watching the news in 2008, with the world’s banking systems going down the tubes, people losing their life savings, and no-one holding the banks accountable, he became very angry. He thought of the bank robber Willie Sutton, whom he had heard stories about as a child growing up in Brooklyn. Sutton had become mythological for his prolific bank heists and his three escapes from prisons. Moehringer then wrote this touching novelization of what could have happened the day Sutton was released from prison on Christmas in 1969 had he revisited the places from his past.

Moehringer researched Willie Sutton and visited the places that he had traversed during his crime sprees. Along with the stories he heard in boyhood, he had plenty of files to work with in visualizing this story.

It’s interesting to me that so many characters (other than an old woman he meets at The Farm Colony) all have descriptive names such as Bad Cop, Good Cop, Reporter, Photographer, Head Nurse. I was wondering why Moehringer would do this. It sort of muddies their faces for me, like maybe the message is that Sutton doesn’t want to know them any deeper. He certainly didn’t want to reveal any of himself to them. Then again, maybe it’s an extension of the world Sutton was in where so many of his cronies had a nickname. There’s Crazy Joe, Angel of Death, Happy, Mad Dog, Botchy. The list goes on.

This book really opened my eyes to some of the white-washing the United States has done with its own history. Never in my school days was I told that every 10-15 years or so the country will have a recession and hey, you should probably prepare for it. Nope, I was told about the Great Depression and everything else was swept under the rug. I was told that as long as you work hard you will be fine. That’s a lie. You can work hard for years and still lose everything. And the banks will come out the winners.

Early in the book, in the summer of 1914, Willie’s friend Eddie rants about this:

Some f***in system, he says. Every ten or fifteen years it crashes. Aint no system, that’s the problem. It’s every man for his-f***in-self. The Crash of ’93? My old man saw people standin in the middle of the street bawlin like babies. Wiped out. Ruined. But did those bankers get pinched? Nah- they got richer. Oh the government promised it would never happen again. Well it happened again didn’t it fellas? In ’07. And ’11. And when them banks fell apart, when the market did a swan dive, didn’t them bankers walk away scot-free again?

Another theme running through the novel is the subject of memory. How much of our memory is really the way things happened and how much is what we want to believe? Sutton’s version of events is highly entertaining but is it entirely accurate? Read through to the end to find out.

I only have one minor quibble in an otherwise engaging story. I thought the ending was a little strange because I didn’t understand why Reporter went to the theme park. Maybe I just missed something.

The world doesn’t know the genuine Willie Sutton. He wrote two autobiographies which contradict each other. At different times he was lauded and then reviled by his neighborhood, the cops, and the country. Was he really a ‘gentleman bandit’? Did he give money away (I think he did – or is it that I hope he did)?

Moehringer’s book, The Tender Bar, an autobiography, has been on my to-read list for years. I really should break it out soon. It would be great if Sutton had bigger publicity. I can only say that it is definitely worth a read, especially if you are interested in criminal history. ( )
  BooksOn23rd | Nov 25, 2015 |
While J.R. Moehringer was watching the news in 2008, with the world’s banking systems going down the tubes, people losing their life savings, and no-one holding the banks accountable, he became very angry. He thought of the bank robber Willie Sutton, whom he had heard stories about as a child growing up in Brooklyn. Sutton had become mythological for his prolific bank heists and his three escapes from prisons. Moehringer then wrote this touching novelization of what could have happened the day Sutton was released from prison on Christmas in 1969 had he revisited the places from his past.

Moehringer researched Willie Sutton and visited the places that he had traversed during his crime sprees. Along with the stories he heard in boyhood, he had plenty of files to work with in visualizing this story.

It’s interesting to me that so many characters (other than an old woman he meets at The Farm Colony) all have descriptive names such as Bad Cop, Good Cop, Reporter, Photographer, Head Nurse. I was wondering why Moehringer would do this. It sort of muddies their faces for me, like maybe the message is that Sutton doesn’t want to know them any deeper. He certainly didn’t want to reveal any of himself to them. Then again, maybe it’s an extension of the world Sutton was in where so many of his cronies had a nickname. There’s Crazy Joe, Angel of Death, Happy, Mad Dog, Botchy. The list goes on.

This book really opened my eyes to some of the white-washing the United States has done with its own history. Never in my school days was I told that every 10-15 years or so the country will have a recession and hey, you should probably prepare for it. Nope, I was told about the Great Depression and everything else was swept under the rug. I was told that as long as you work hard you will be fine. That’s a lie. You can work hard for years and still lose everything. And the banks will come out the winners.

Early in the book, in the summer of 1914, Willie’s friend Eddie rants about this:

Some f***in system, he says. Every ten or fifteen years it crashes. Aint no system, that’s the problem. It’s every man for his-f***in-self. The Crash of ’93? My old man saw people standin in the middle of the street bawlin like babies. Wiped out. Ruined. But did those bankers get pinched? Nah- they got richer. Oh the government promised it would never happen again. Well it happened again didn’t it fellas? In ’07. And ’11. And when them banks fell apart, when the market did a swan dive, didn’t them bankers walk away scot-free again?

Another theme running through the novel is the subject of memory. How much of our memory is really the way things happened and how much is what we want to believe? Sutton’s version of events is highly entertaining but is it entirely accurate? Read through to the end to find out.

I only have one minor quibble in an otherwise engaging story. I thought the ending was a little strange because I didn’t understand why Reporter went to the theme park. Maybe I just missed something.

The world doesn’t know the genuine Willie Sutton. He wrote two autobiographies which contradict each other. At different times he was lauded and then reviled by his neighborhood, the cops, and the country. Was he really a ‘gentleman bandit’? Did he give money away (I think he did – or is it that I hope he did)?

Moehringer’s book, The Tender Bar, an autobiography, has been on my to-read list for years. I really should break it out soon. It would be great if Sutton had bigger publicity. I can only say that it is definitely worth a read, especially if you are interested in criminal history. ( )
  BooksOn23rd | Nov 25, 2015 |
I knew I was going to love this book after maybe thirty pages. Willie was endearing and I found myself rooting for him like the public did. Moehringer has a particular flair to his writing style that ever once in a while just hits you -- wow. Chapter Twenty Three though, more than three hundred pages through, it lost a star. It is probably not fair to dock its rating because my disappointment wasn't with the book so much as with human nature and story telling. Reporter explained it perfectly himself in the next chapter, we "[live] three separate lives. The one [we] remember, the one [we tell] people about, the one that really happened." I guess part of me just liked the life as Willie remembered and told it.
This review is only vague and equivocal because I don't want to spoil the novel. Some really terrifically quotable lines and a memorable main character. I love it when a book makes me wish I could sit down for a cup of coffee with one of its characters, this is one of those books. ( )
  Jackie_Sassa | Nov 20, 2015 |
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 |
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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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