Sunday, May 27, 2018
Books

Review: J.R. Moehringer fictionalizes bank robber's life in 'Sutton'

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."

Comments
Notable: Books for the beach

Notable: Books for the beach

NotableBooks for the beachSuit up: It’s time for a few new books built for vacation reading.By Invitation Only (William Morrow) by Dorothea Benton Frank is the latest serving of Frank’s trademark warm humor and engaging characters, set around two wed...
Published: 05/25/18
Judy Blundell brings on summertime on Long Island in ‘High Season’

Judy Blundell brings on summertime on Long Island in ‘High Season’

NightstandJudy BlundellSince it’s Memorial Day weekend, we decided to touch base with Judy Blundell, whose new book is High Season. The novel’s protagonist is Ruthie Beamish, director of a small museum who, to make ends meet, rents out her seaside ho...
Published: 05/25/18

Events: Pulitzer winner Jack Davis to discuss ‘The Gulf’ at Oxford Exchange

Book TalkUniversity of Florida historian Jack E. Davis (The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea) will discuss and sign his Pulitzer Prize-winning book at 1 p.m. May 27 at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa. Admission $5, applicable towar...
Published: 05/25/18
Review: Family matters in David Sedaris’ ‘Calypso’

Review: Family matters in David Sedaris’ ‘Calypso’

David Sedaris gets right to the point in the opening of the first essay in his new book, Calypso: "Though there’s an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age. The only perk I can see is that, with luck, you’ll ac...
Published: 05/24/18
Review: Strait-laced writer Michael Pollan explores psychedelics, and leaves the door of perception ajar

Review: Strait-laced writer Michael Pollan explores psychedelics, and leaves the door of perception ajar

Microdosing is hot. If you haven’t heard — but you probably have, from reports of its use at Silicon Valley workplaces, from Ayelet Waldman’s memoir A Really Good Day, from dozens of news stories — to microdose is to take small amounts of LSD, which ...
Published: 05/24/18
Bancroft: Philip Roth deftly explored male lust, Jewish identity, American history and politics

Bancroft: Philip Roth deftly explored male lust, Jewish identity, American history and politics

Philip Roth, one of the most potent voices in American fiction, died Tuesday night of congestive heart failure in a New York City hospital. He was 85.Mr. Roth was the last man standing of a generation of fiction writers sometimes called "the great wh...
Published: 05/23/18

Events: Tarbell.org founder Wendell Potter to discuss, sign book

Book TalkTarbell.org founder Wendell Potter (Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It) will discuss and sign his book at 4 p.m. May 23 at the St. Petersburg Main Library, 3745 Ninth Ave. N.Applications are ...
Published: 05/21/18
The real stuff is how Tom Wolfe best used his write stuff

The real stuff is how Tom Wolfe best used his write stuff

Tom Wolfe’s best writing lifted real people into legend: car designers and astronauts and disciples of LSD. With that writing, Wolfe lifted himself into legend as well. The author of 16 books, including such bestsellers as The Right Stuff and ...
Published: 05/18/18
Review: In Stephen King’s ‘The Outsider,’ evil can’t be true but must be true

Review: In Stephen King’s ‘The Outsider,’ evil can’t be true but must be true

On a July day, Terry Maitland, one of the most popular men in Flint City, Okla. — high school English teacher, Little League coach, husband and father, recently named the town’s man of the year — attends a teachers convention in a city over an hour’s...
Published: 05/17/18

Events: Gilbert King to discuss ‘Beneath a Ruthless Sun’ at Inkwood in Tampa

Book TalkCutter Wood (Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Crime) will discuss and sign his nonfiction book about a murder on Anna Maria Island at 6 p.m. May 14 at Bookstore1, 12 S Palm Ave., Sarasota.The Gulfport Historical Society p...
Updated one month ago