J. R. Moehringer first came to the attention of readers with his 2005 memoir The Tender Bar. In 2012, he returned with a novel, Sutton, which chronicles the life of the American bank robber Willie “the Actor” Sutton. The two works might be closer in nature than that summary first suggests: told from Willie’s perspective, and dependent on his memory (his fictionalized memory: the real life Sutton didn’t talk much to reporters about his exploits, and when he did, as in his 1976 ghostwritten memoir, the information was often questionable), this historical novel reads like one of those contemporary memoirs that leaves readers wondering if they’re getting the whole truth. In this case, however, that’s not a negative, it’s kind of the point.
The novel opens with Sutton’s surprise parole from New York’s Attica prison on Christmas Eve, 1969 at the age of 69. Willie is on death’s doorstep with emphysema and weak arteries in his legs, a bit bewildered by the world’s changes, but he makes a deal with the New York Herald to tell his story. So on Christmas Day, a cub reporter and a beatnik photographer drive him around the city, visiting the sites of all of his life’s major events in chronological order. Arnold Schuster, the young man who spotted the heavily disguised Willie and turned him in to police, was killed by the mob. The question that hung over Sutton’s head was whether he had somehow ordered the hit. In the book, this piece of information is all that the reporter really wants from Willie, but Willie refuses to talk about Schuster until he has visited all of his old stomping grounds. The narrative alternates between Willie’s remembrances and his reactions to what has become of his former haunts and accomplices.
Sutton was born into an Irish Brooklyn neighborhood at the start of the 20th century. As he tells his story, the cycle of economic depressions, a lack of opportunities, and a desperate attempt to win the wealthy girl who was the love of his life away from her parents’ control were the key elements in his descent into a life of crime. He ultimately became famous for nearly one hundred nonviolent bank and jewelry store robberies, made successful mostly through disguises. While highly successful, Willie was always tripped up by undependable accomplices (at least that’s his story, perhaps the largest conflict of the book is deciding whether Willie is a dependable narrator). He went to prison often, but also became famous for his daring prison breaks. Sutton was on the FBI’s first Most Wanted list when it was released in 1950.
This novel should have broad appeal to crime fiction fans, historical fiction lovers, and literary fiction buffs. Willie makes a likable and fascinating narrator, even as one questions his veracity. Moehringer admits up front that he had to create most of his narrative with imagination, but the historical settings feel accurate and just when you think the plot is getting predictable, a surprising twist is always at hand.
I can highly recommend the audiobook, which actor Dylan Baker reads in fine style, switching deftly between many character voices. Baker is one of those great character actors whom everyone recognizes but few recognize by name. He attended college at William and Mary and acted in many local theater productions before making it big on the stage, on television and in films.
Check the WRL catalog for Sutton
Or try Sutton as an audiobook on compact disc