When the infamous criminal Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he answered, "That's where the money is."
Except, as Sutton himself later proclaimed in a memoir, he never said it. Instead, what is now known as "Sutton's Law" was, in fact, the work of a creative journalist. Sutton and a creative journalist meet again in J.R. Moehringer's debut novel, a delightful piece of historical fiction that blends fact with verisimilitude.
Sutton, at age 68, was pardoned from Attica on Christmas Eve in 1969. On Christmas, he spent the day, as Moehringer recounts in an author's note, with a reporter and photographer touring New York. Their shared journey included "visiting the scenes of his most famous heists and other points of interest in (Sutton's) remarkable life."
Moehringer, a former Pulitzer Prize winner at the Los Angeles Times, notes that the resulting article was "strangely cursory, with several errors — or lies — and few real revelations."
Sutton died in 1980 and the reporter and photographer are also dead. That mysterious, virtually undocumented day, combined with the resentment and anger over the role of bankers during the recent Great Recession, sowed the seeds for a novel recounting what Moehringer thinks could have happened. Or, as he puts it, "This book is my guess. But it's also my wish."
Moehringer won praise for two earlier books. The first was The Tender Bar, a favorably reviewed memoir of his idiosyncratic childhood, much of it spent in a neighborhood pub. He followed that success by co-authoring tennis star Andre Agassi's highly praised autobiography, Open.
Those experiences of memoir and the machinations of celebrity and fame make Sutton a natural third act. The real-life version of Moehringer's protagonist embraced a gentlemanly approach, possessed a sharp wit and became a Robin Hood figure thanks to his penchant for prison escapes and various disguises used to carry out his capers. Various accounts estimate Sutton's robberies to total $2 million.
Much as Larry McMurtry professed his chagrin over reinforcing the Western myth in Lonesome Dove when he sought to deconstruct it, so, too, does Moehringer turn Sutton into a romantic character even as he tries to debunk such notions.
Willie Sutton grew up in an Irish slum in New York. In Moehringer's telling, the future bank robber fell into crime through frustration, lack of prospects amid the original Depression and, yes, the love of a girl.
Moehringer describes "Irish haircuts" (slamming someone over the head with a lead pipe wrapped in newspaper) and does a convincing job conveying the day-to-day grind of poverty. Brooklyn in the early 1900s, he writes, is a place filled with dead horses, most left lying in the gutter. "Over time (each dead horse) swells like a balloon, until it explodes," he writes. "A sound like a cannon."
For obvious reasons, the author has no trouble sketching the lives of reporters and editors, forever angling for the next story while trying to discern whether any of what they're being told is usable, interesting and, perhaps most far-fetched, truthful. Moehringer's Sutton is jaded, a life-long celebrity who knows the angles being played by his newfound media escorts — and he is happy to seize upon their desperation for a few profound quotes and some artful photos.
"Selling myths, that's what you fellas do," Sutton tells the reporter soon after they meet. "The front page, the sports page, the financial pages — all myths."
Throughout the novel, Sutton and his fellow cons compare their thievery with the crashes and speculative bubbles caused by the recklessness of bankers and other Wall Street mercenaries. Moehringer never justifies Willie Sutton's acts or crimes, but he has plenty of fun making the serious point that white-collar crime rarely leads to the harsh consequences engendered by less-sophisticated thefts.
The structure of the book intercuts backstory set pieces of Sutton's past with his tour of the city in 1969 with the newspapermen. Sutton sketches out a route of significant places in his life — scenes of crimes, first dates, family, heartbreak and friendships — and the photographer and reporter ferry him to each site in a Dodge Polara.
"You said you wanted the nickel tour of my life," he tells them. "There it is. I mapped it all out."
The aging robber, suffering from failing arteries in his leg, stumbles out of the car at each stop, muttering to himself as his mind wanders from the present into the past.
At other times, he wonders at the cultural changes that occurred during his 17 years in Attica. A remodeled Yankee Stadium is, in Sutton's view, a disaster. Told the cost of a ballgame beer is now 50 cents, he pronounces such gouging to be jail-worthy.
Glimpsing President Nixon on a TV in a shop window, Sutton calls the pre-Watergate Nixon a criminal.
The young reporter tells Sutton, "Personally, I liked Romney. Then, after he dropped out, I rooted for Reagan. I was hoping he'd win the nomination."
Says Sutton: "Reagan? God help us."
When the reporter asks what's wrong with Reagan, Sutton replies, "An actor running the world? Get a grip."
This kind of freighted dialogue — invoking former presidential candidate George Romney just as his son Mitt earned the 2012 Republican nomination, foreshadowing the fall of Nixon and the rise of Reagan — is but one of the many little touches that make this novel a pleasure from start to finish. When Sutton encounters a future mentor, a boxman who furnishes his spacious apartment with safes of all shapes and sizes serving as tables, he asks, "Who's your decorator, Wells Fargo?"
And, like many an Elmore Leonard criminal, Sutton sees a refracted, reciprocal relationship between Hollywood and the underworld.
"No one loves Bogart more than me," he says, "but the man's caused more bloodshed than Mussolini."
A great line and, no doubt, sure to be part of the inevitable movie adaptation of Moehringer's entertaining novel. Even at full price, it is, of course, a steal.
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