October 21, 2012

He knew where the money was, and he usually took it

“Sutton” by J.R. Moehringer (Hyperion, 334 pages, $27.99)

“Sutton” by J.R. Moehringer (Hyperion, 334 pages, $27.99)

There are two ways to read “Sutton,” by J.R. Moehringer: as a third-rate novel with a deep and crippling cornball streak, or as a loose and journalistic speculative biography of a famous bank robber. Either way, you lose. But you lose less if you decide to read it as semi-true biography. You can at least enjoy the ragtime shuffle of the author’s better sentences.

The bank robber is Willie Sutton, the man famous for supposedly saying, when asked why he held up banks, “That’s where the money is.” Sutton robbed dozens of them during his four-decade-long career. He also escaped from three maximum-security prisons, prompting frantic manhunts, and became a folk hero in the process. His dapper Irish good looks didn’t hurt. When young, he somewhat resembled Jack Kerouac.

In the overselling style that characterizes “Sutton,” which is billed as a novel, Moehringer declaims about his hero: “Smarter than Machine Gun Kelly, saner than Pretty Boy Floyd, more likable than Legs Diamond, more peaceable than Dutch Schultz, more romantic than Bonnie and Clyde, Sutton saw bank robbery as high art and went about it with an artist’s single-minded zeal.” That’s not the sound fiction makes. That’s the sound jacket copy makes.

Sutton’s famous quotation has always made him seem like a lovable dunce, Yogi Berra with a gun moll and a getaway car. In “Sutton,” Moehringer reminds us that he was a shrewd fellow and a committed reader, with copies of Dante and Tennyson tucked into his prison cell. Sutton wrote two memoirs (they contradicted each other) and an unpublished novel.

Moehringer uses Sutton’s fondness for libraries to grinding effect, as an excuse to turn each sentence that comes out of his mouth into a barroom epigram. “Sutton” is set on Christmas Day 1969, just after its hero’s surprise parole from Attica at 68. (He died from emphysema in Florida 11 years later.) The novel chronicles the hours Sutton spent in New York City with two journalists who had been promised an exclusive. Sutton gives them a greatest-hits tour of his past, while readers get more substantive flashbacks.

But “Sutton” has little of the depth, nuance or graininess of real fiction. Reading it is like watching a man confidently paint the exterior walls of a house while completely forgetting to do the interiors.

“A man has to feel good at something or he’s not a man,” Willie Sutton says, in one of the many bromides that pack this novel. Moehringer is very good at many things. Fiction is not yet one of them.

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