by J.R. Moehringer
ISBN-13: 9781401323141
Hyperion, 2012

I don’t usually read bank robber stories, but I liked this book. I read it because J.R. Moehringer wrote it, and after Andre Agassi’s biography, Open, anything by Moehringer goes on my must-read list.

Sutton is a historical novel based on the life of Willie “The Actor” Sutton, a man who reached folk hero status through his decades-long career as a bank robber. Sutton used make-up and disguises to fool his bank victims. He was “The Actor” in his role of robber of the banks that were robbing the people.

A real-life event provides the skeleton for the book: Christmas Eve, 1969, Willie Sutton was set free from Attica Correctional Facility. The following day—Christmas Day—he spent with a photographer and a reporter driving around New York City re-living the story of his life. As with all things involving Willie Sutton, the details of the real day are fuzzy or contradictory, so Moehringer fleshes out this real-life occurrence with his novel version of what such a day could, maybe should, have been like. Moving back and forth between past and present, he unfolds the tale of how an ordinary man from the Irish slums of Brooklyn became one of the most notorious 20th Century bank robbers and escape artists.

Moehringer deftly peals back the layers of his characters through subtle details. How reputable is the plastic surgeon? He misspells the word nasal. How does his friend, Eddie, view life? He yells out to a room full of newborn babies, “Welcome to earth, suckers. The whole thin’s rigged.” And Sutton? He speaks about himself in the third person. He casts himself in any role that will help him get through the next moment, and he casts those around him in roles as well. For him, the people who come into and out of his life don’t have names. They are Photographer, Reporter, Quack, Porter, Lawyer, Big Cop and Bigger Cop.

“Willie reads that acting isn’t about what you say, it’s about what you don’t say, what you vividly withhold. The audience doesn’t want to know you, they want to feel that desire to know you. Since you never fully satisfy that desire, never come clean, acting is the opposite of confessing. Willie underlines this passage in pen.”

The real Willie Sutton character appealed to the struggling masses of the early 20th Century, when banks were the Bad Guys. Moehringer’s novel Willie Sutton character appeals to a 21st Century audience interested in the extravagant, luxurious highs and violent, harrowing, solitary lows of a mythical bank robber.

After reading Sutton, we don’t feel we know Willie “The Actor” Sutton, but we desire to know him.


Read my review of Open by Andre Agassi with J.R. Moehringer here.


About Arlene Somerton Smith

Writer, laughing thinker, miner of inspirational insights, sports fan, and community volunteer

Posted on February 6, 2013, in Book reviews, Books I bought, Fiction and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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