In the prologue to Sutton, J. R. Moehringer (previously known for his memoir The Tender Bar) admits that the history in his novel about bank robber Willie “the Actor” Sutton is largely invented. In real life, Sutton was tight-lipped with the press, and when he did speak to them, he often fed them misinformation.
Normally, that would be a turn off for me and many other readers of historical fiction, but in this case the creation of a new identity is appropriate for the character: Sutton’s success as a bank robber depended on the costumes and makeup that he used to get employees to open the doors to him when the bank was closed. Using that as his starting point, Moehringer plays with this idea of the false identity to great effect.
The story takes place on Christmas Day in 1969. Pardoned in a surprise, Sutton makes a deal with a newspaper for an exclusive. A cub reporter (it’s Christmas and the veterans are home with their families) and a hippie photographer drive Willie around New York City, revisiting, in chronological order, all of the important places of his life. Starting with the Irish Brooklyn slums where Willie grew up, they visit the places where he met his friends, courted his first girl, the sites of his legitimate jobs, the jewelry stores and banks he robbed, and the places where he hid between thefts or after his many prison escapes. Even though Willie is seriously ill, he leads the younger men, who only want to know whether he was involved in the death of the man who last turned him in, on a sometimes merry, sometimes melancholy chase around the city.
Sutton is particularly devoted to Bess, the rich girl who he assumed was his ticket out of mediocrity, who ultimately inspired his life of crime. His devotion to her is the one constant in a life of blind alleys. One of the central questions in the book is whether her love is as steadfast as his.
While Willie is largely his creation, Moehringer captures the historical trappings of New York from the turn of the century to 1969 believably. The Sutton he portrays is tenacious and creative, a raconteur and an underdog. Willie is hard not to like despite his life of crime, but this is the tale of a man who has spent his entire life building new identities for himself, a man who may not even be able to separate his own truth from the legend anymore. You’ll be kept guessing and happily surprised by the twists that the author reveals right down to the last page of the novel.
As a memoirist and a novelist, Moehringer has obviously thought long and hard about the notion of the created self, of the vagaries of memory and self image. Those ideas are at center stage in Sutton, and ultimately raise this historical fiction to a cut above. Your book group will have a good time trying to get to the bottom of the enigma that was Willie “the Actor” Sutton.