Willie Sutton was a thug with a fan club. He robbed banks at gunpoint. If a manager refused to open the safe, he would threaten to kill the tellers.
But, as J.R. Moehringer points out in Sutton, his fictionalized excursion through the criminal's career from the 1930s through the 1950s, Willie was a "god in parts of Brooklyn." Why? Because he had the sympathies of a public for whom the local lender was more Old Man Potter than George Bailey.
"Who the hell has a kind word to say for banks?" Moehringer has a reporter ask upon Sutton's release from Attica prison. "They should not only let him out, they should give him the key to the city."
Moehringer's conceit for this novel is simple: On Christmas Eve of 1969 Sutton left prison for the last time. He spent the next day with a reporter and photographer driving around New York. Moehringer reconstructs that day, allowing his protagonist to look back on his life of crime.
The reliability of these memories comes into question at every turn. The picture is complicated more by Moehringer's imaginative departures from the known facts of Sutton's life.
Distortion and misrepresentation are central to that life. Known as "the Actor," he would pose as a police officer or deliveryman to catch bank security off guard. He wrote (or co-wrote) two memoirs, which contradict each other on basic facts.
And he never said he robbed banks because "that's where the money was." In Moehringer's telling, Sutton breaks the news about the apocryphal quote to his crestfallen reporter-escort, saying another journalist invented the line.
But Moehringer's Sutton embraces the legend, because it serves the robber's ends. The more people think he's a folk hero, the easier it is for him to pursue his career without examining its moral implications.
Moehringer's Sutton is less a Robin Hood than a self-absorbed schemer. The distortions, elisions and fables pile up until Sutton can no longer separate fact from fantasy, just as he has always had difficulty telling right from wrong.
This is not to say that the novel is all existential exploration. It's also a jaunty trek through several New Yorks. Sutton is sprung from Attica after almost 20 years into a city that has changed "on a subatomic level," where women wear miniskirts and men who visited the moon get ticker-tape parades.
Moehringer takes us back to postwar Brooklyn, when the Dodgers ruled, back further to the heyday of Dutch Schultz and finally to the start of the last century, when dirt roads and blacksmiths were not uncommon sights in the County of Kings.
For all its bittersweet nostalgia, though, Sutton is very much a novel of today. After the biggest economic setback since the Great Depression, banks again are popular targets of scorn and suspicion. Moehringer's Sutton expresses an opinion in 1969 that wouldn't be out of place at an Occupy Wall Street rally today:
"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."