on September 26, 2012
At just midway into Sutton I can tell you it's the second best book I've read this years, the first being Beautiful Ruins. William Francis Sutton Jr. was born in Brooklyn in 1901, his father was a blacksmith, his two older brothers beat up on him with regularity and his mother spent her days reading a bible aloud to his blind grandfather and I was reminded for a moment of Angela's Ashes for a moment in the description of this impoverished home. On the day the book opens Willie is being released after 17 years in Attica prison in New York and he leads a reporter and a photographer on a tour of his old stomping grounds in New York. you learn that he is a self-taught erudite gentleman bank robber who has spent his years in jail reading the classics and staying up on current affairs. Kirkus Reviews has given Sutton a starred review and I too want to recommend this book to all.
There's a whole generation or two of readers who don't know much about the life of Willie Sutton, although some might come up with the right question in response to a low value Jeopardy box like, "He said that's where the money is." Thanks to a finely written debut novel, Sutton, by J.R. Moehringer, readers can find out about the person who robbed more banks than anyone else, and became a folk hero to his fellow Americans. A reporter and photographer have been sent to pick up Sutton as he leaves prison for an exclusive interview. While Sutton agrees to the interview, he takes charge of leading the young reporter on a tour of special places in New York that meant a lot to Sutton, and this journey provides the setting for Moehringer to lay out the story of Sutton's life. Unlike a stale biography, the novel structure allows Moehringer to blend historical facts with his own imagination to produce an engaging, entertaining and well told story. Any reader who appreciates well written prose, loves New York, and has an interest in twentieth century stories, is likely to enjoy this novel.
Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
on September 25, 2012
This is a book so brilliantly conceived, perfectly paced and filled with sweeping emotions, there is only one man who could have written it. Moehringer. This author may in fact be the greatest writer, storyteller and wordsmith of our generation. You'll want to read it for the compelling story of Willy the Actor, the tragic hero of a generation. But mostly, you'll want to read it for a peek into the mind of J R, its author. He brings to life a true American thrill ride, filled with love, daring, heroism, betrayal, even a deep psychoanalysis that will make you pause in your reading to consider your own life. And, what better time than now to read about a man that had issues with banks, and a world that adored him for it.
J R had me at The Tender Bar, his deeply loved memoir. It impacted my life intensely, so much so, I could only describe it to friends as causing a personal revival. Some actually resented how much I talked about that book...until they read it. The author's sheer perspective on life made me want to change mine, and made me want to attack life in a whole new way. Like someone reaching through the pages and shaking you, and inspiring you at the same time. He followed his own story with that of tennis great, Andre Agassi with OPEN. Already considered one of the great autobiography's of our time, Andre's life in the skillful hands of Moehringer, not only became a runaway bestseller, but single hand-idly raised the bar for the entire memoir genre. Even Agassi said he didn't fully understand his life until he viewed it through Moehringer's lens. So I can say pretty confidently that the world of 'booklovers' has been holding their collective breath in anticipation of J R's first novel. Sutton is a masterpiece on many levels, some of which you become aware of only on the second or third reading. It's that good. It is packed with subtleties and gems that live just below the literal story. This is a book begging to be read slowly, because on second glance there is more, much more going on than you think. J R must have had this percolating for years, as I couldn't imagine the rich layers of thought and emotion contained in its pages being conceived any other way.
This is an action book, it thrills. Its writing, masculine. But while the story is taking you in one direction, seeds that you never saw coming are being planted in your mind and heart that will amaze you and have you wondering about life at its core. I don't know how he does that, but Moehringer is three for three. Stop reading these reviews and start reading the book. You'll be writing your own review shortly.
on October 26, 2012
J. R. Mohringer is my favorite author EVER! I am 68 years old and an avid reader and "Tender Bar" was the best memoir I've ever read and now "Sutton" brings home just why I'm totally in love with Mr. Mohringer. WONDERFUL!!!
Sutton is a terrific book. I spent the whole second half of the novel revising my impression of him. I was sure he as a sociopath, especially after the psychologist in the jail points out he has returned to crime over and over and seems oblivious to the fact he is in fact stealing and that everyone who encounters him dies badly. Then I read about his soul searching to Bishop Sheen's book and I take another direction.
Sutton was apparently a master of misdirection, and we should take his nickname, The Actor, to heart. The novel takes place when he is released from jail in the 60's after nearly 20 years in prison. A Reporter and a Shooter (photographer) are directed to get his story on a "rat" who was murdered after turning him in to the police. Sutton believes he is dying, and talks only if they take him to the various scenes of life changing events.
Within the novel, there are two narratives, one that he dictates to the reporter and one recording his true memories. He loves to read, and reads the heavy hitters, philosophy and classic literature. In this book, he believes himself to have been a good man who never hurt anyone. We are given just enough alternative facts to question much of what he has to say.
History agrees he was loved by many people for robbing the banks, a sentiment that resonates today. He was charming. But we will never know who he was. Moehringer writes a masterful book to show us we never really know each other. I couldnt reccomend this book more. I read obsessively and I kept getting this book as a recommend on Amazon. I didnt think I would like it, I didnt necessarily want to read a book about a bank robber. But I am so glad they wore me down. If you have to choose a book from the scroll of possibles, read this book.
I'm going to write the author an extended thank-you letter for this book. It has opened up and fleshed out a childhood question that has intrigued me since I was old enough to read. The author already established himself as one of my favorite writers with his memoir, The Tender Bar: A Memoir. Reading Sutton cemented this feeling for me. It is a deeply affecting, highly entertaining book.
Sutton reconstructs the story of folk-hero/bank robber Willie Sutton in a really creative way: after Sutton's release from Prison in 1969, he takes a reporter and a photographer on an exclusive chronological journey through his old haunts. As they visit the five boroughs of New York City the newspapermen begin to get glimpses of the man behind the myth... or do they? Sutton is an intriguing character, beautifully drawn here. A product of a keen intellect and one of the hardest stretches of Twentieth Century American History. His story is the story of rising disillusionment and corruption and the mental gymnastics needed to survive. Sutton moves through a succession of impossible situations beginning with a brutal childhood, with the grace of a philosopher (or a prizefighter...), buoyed along by his love of knowledge and the pursuit of the love of his life. He finds there is one thing he does really well. The fact that it isn't legal has a basically very moral man jumping through hoops to convince himself that his life has meaning and is justified, much as we all do. Sutton's life was just writ on a larger stage than most of us will ever tread upon.
Moehringer's portrait of the slums of Irish Town, Brooklyn in the first decades of the last century is so resonant with sensory elements, I could smell the streets. His description of the elation of a released convict slipping off the prison garb and putting on his release suit, is worth the price of the book alone. For any student of the criminal component of American Culture and the achievements of the heart rising above its surroundings, this novel should be considered part of the canon.
on October 3, 2012
It's not that I couldn't put down J.R. Moehringer's "The Tender Bar." It was more like, after reading it nonstop for a few hours, his memoir became part of me. And you know how it goes when that happens: The only way you'll take this book from me is to pry it from my cold dead hands.
Verdict: the best book I read that year.
So I couldn't wait to read "Sutton," Moehringer's debut novel. The book is loosely based on the life of Willie Sutton (1901-1980), the bank robber who probably never said his often quoted line: "Why did I rob banks? Because that's where the money is." From the late 1920s until the early 1050s, Sutton separated about $2 million from nearly 100 banks. His crimes were exhaustively researched and planned. He was a master of disguises. He never hurt anyone. And he was a New Yorker; he had the full attention of the media. Folk hero? Bigger than Dillinger.
But that's a banal description. Here's Moehringer:
"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."
The frame of the book is Sutton's release from jail on Christmas Eve, 1969. He's made a deal with Newsday; on Christmas, one of its photographers and reporters will drive him around his old haunts in New York while he reminisces. The distance between then and now --- he's never been on a plane, never heard John Lennon --- should be illuminating.
And it is, in large part because of the liberties Moehringer has taken with the official story. (Which is itself suspect; in Sutton's two memoirs, he frequently disagrees with himself.) The narrator of the book isn't Sutton in his prime. He's been in prison for half of his life; he's 69, and ill, maybe dying. His priorities are not those of the hippie photographer or the straight-arrow reporter.
Can Sutton talk? That's like asking if Moehringer can write. He can toss off a great line: "The sound of men in cages --- nothing can compare with it." He's uncovered great trivia: There are 250,000 lights bulbs at Coney Island; no wonder Coney Island is the first thing seen by ships at sea. And because his Sutton is a great reader in prison, it's completely in character when he just goes off: "People are already mad for diamonds, but people don't know the half. The haunting beauty of stolen diamonds in a black silk purse at two in the morning --- it's like being the first person to ever see the stars."
Like most memoirs, real or imagined, the early years are the most vivid. Sutton's childhood is horrific, right up there with Frank McCourt's. He tries to live straight --- his first job is in a bank --- but love gets in the way. Bess Endner is rich and beautiful, One kiss, and he knows: "His future is being reshaped." That romance leads him to crime, and crime leads him away from Bess. Half a century later, life has taught him one lesson above all others: "Money and love. That's all that matters." On Christmas Day, Bess is the past he wants most to see.
Powerful stuff, and it will carry you deep into the book. And there, if you are like me, you will stall. Sutton was almost as famous for his jailbreaks as for his robberies. And so we see him breaking out. And again. And again. If you've seen "The Shawshank Redemption" --- and who hasn't? --- you've seen a great escape. Imagine seeing that several times.
Am I making too much of a few repetitive scenes? Perhaps. But this is J.R. Moehringer, one of the best writers we've got. We don`t want him to make a single mistake. When he does? Skip a few pages. Look away. And then dive back into a tale well told.
on March 12, 2013
At the outset, I must say that I went into this book with full knowledge that it is "historical fiction". But it very soon started to irritate me that it was mostly fiction, and that I was not even sure about the facts (genuine events and characters) or when they were being narrated. You know the problem: when a part of an account is untrue, you start to doubt whether anything is true. I suppose that the book follows the basic events in Willy's life, but the overwhelming portion of the book is the fictional detail of Willy's made up dialog and thoughts.
So, at the end of the book, I am not really much wiser about the life of Willy Sutton than I was when I started. For a book about a bank robber, there is startlingly little description of any actual robberies! How did he plan them? How did he carry them out? How did he behave toward the bank staff? How did he select the banks' location? How did his approach to the robberies vary from one to another? Where did he hide all the money? How did he avoid the police? Wouldn't you expect to learn all about this in the book? If you did, you were disappointed, just like me. The man was clearly a very good bank robber, but I still have no idea why. The robberies come across almost as incidental events.
The back and forth between the "tour" after he was finally released and the chronological order of events was an interesting way of presenting the story, although I don't really know whether there was such a tour. The absence of quotation marks for speech did not bother at all (as it did some others). But the style was disjointed and the flow lacked harmony. (I sometimes felt like I was reading a mediocre sequel to "The Tender Bar"). It is written using this rough and tough New York street language, which is just a bit much when it goes on for 400+ pages. In fact, it took me more than half the book to get into it, and if I was better about dumping books that I was not enjoying, I would not have reached the end.
So I must regretfully say I was a little disappointed with this book. I think it had the potential to be much more. An opportunity lost.
on February 19, 2016
BUY THIS BOOK. You will not regret it. It is my second favorite novel of all-time.
J.R. Moehringer's only drawback as an author is his limited body of work. Sutton is a killer follow-up to his unrelated memoir "The Tender Bar" (another personal favorite of mine).
Moehringer paints a vivid picture in this novel about a ruthless bank robber who was unfortunately caught in the wrong place at the wrong time during most of his life. Unlike his felonious friends, Willie "The Actor" Sutton has class and style that is unmatched by most criminals. By the end of the story, it is clear that Willie's wit, charm, and intelligence clearly were the key attributes that separated him from the average thief.
Moehringer's brilliant usage of imagery puts the reader directly in Willie's shoes through many of his misadventures. Any reader that has a strong affection for good writing and character development will love this book. If you do not like this book, feel free to message me directly, because I would love to hear a good reason why you dont!
on October 8, 2012
Sutton by J.R. Moehringer is the type of book that pulls you in right in the beginning, and takes you along on a ride right up to the very end. It is about the life of Willie Sutton and his career as the most successful and famous bank robber in America. It isn't exactly a memoir or life story about the man, but instead weaves historical fiction about his life with the creative imagination of J.R. Moehringer.
Sutton is a fabulously crafted novel that is written with such substance it felt as if I was watching a movie play out as I read it. This fact shouldn't be ignored in the review, it is a high quality story that could easily be turned into a movie. Hopefully it does, but in the meantime, this novel is one that could be enjoyed by many different types of readers.
Willie Sutton was a "Robin Hood" of his time, and is the type of anti-hero that I enjoy reading about. He isn't a "good" guy, but he is one I found myself rooting for. He had a horrible childhood, didn't get things right for a long time, and along the way found out he is really good at robbing banks. Obviously it wasn't legal to do so, but he tried to justify to himself that doing this to the corrupt banks was okay.
This is a highly entertaining book that I really enjoyed reading. If you are looking for a good read, I highly suggest reading this novel.
* Thank you to the publisher of Sutton, Hyperion, for providing me with a copy of this book for review. All opinions expressed are my own.