Willie Sutton was born in the squalid Irish slums of Brooklyn, in the first year of the twentieth century, and came of age at a time when banks were out of control. If they weren't failing outright, causing countless Americans to lose their jobs and homes, they were being propped up with emergency bailouts. Trapped in a cycle of panics, depressions and soaring unemployment, Sutton saw only one way out, only one way to win the girl of his dreams.
So began the career of America's most successful bank robber. Over three decades Sutton became so good at breaking into banks, and such a master at breaking out of prisons, police called him one of the most dangerous men in New York, and the FBI put him on its first-ever Most Wanted List.
But the public rooted for Sutton. He never fired a shot, after all, and his victims were merely those bloodsucking banks. When he was finally caught for good in 1952, crowds surrounded the jail and chanted his name.
Blending vast research with vivid imagination, Pulitzer Prize winner J.R. Moehringer brings Willie Sutton blazing back to life. In Moehringer's retelling, it was more than poverty or rage at society that drove Sutton. It was one unforgettable woman. In all Sutton's crimes and confinements, his first love (and first accomplice) was never far from his thoughts. And when Sutton finally walked free - a surprise pardon on Christmas Eve, 1969 - he immediately set out to find her.
Poignant, comic, fast-paced and fact-studded, Sutton tells a story of economic pain that feels eerily modern, while unfolding a story of doomed love that is forever timeless.
I liked the flashback style utilized as Willie, the reporter, and the photographer follow his chronological map of memories through NY. It reminds me of raptly listening to my grandpa and dad talk about the gangster days, relating street corners and buildings in the city to the “old days” – showing me yellowed pictures and news articles. I don’t remember them mentioning Sutton; maybe our Chicago location influenced their choice of gangsters? The mini-history lesson adds to Sutton’s personal story: the Depression, WWI, Nixon, Woodstock etc... The reporter and photographer frequently point out times when Willie contradicts himself as he tells them what happened in the past at each point on his map. Then, in the end, reading of a final contradiction stunned me.
Willie’s wry bemusement at the 60’s haircuts (or lack of), Fu Manchu mustaches, and drug habits added humor. The dialogue in the early chapters reminded me of a Cagney film or a Bugs Bunny gangster cartoon....but then, the poetry and imagery of Moehringer’s writing impressed and evoked deeper thought: Willie’s perspective on astronaut Collins from the first moon landing or comparing the sacred code of Irish Town to knowing Judas’ name but not the name of the soldier who nailed Jesus to the cross. Maybe the November weather is influencing my opinion...but Moehringer’s gangster, prison metaphors seem so insightful to me: “youth is a little old lady...with a pocketful of cash” and “time is... a thug”. In his conversation about Bess, she’s described as a diamond to protect while Willie is a ten cent cone, who isn’t worthy of her. The author’s era-grounded, deep meaningful prose makes this read worth much more than just historical fiction that may shock, touch, and sadden you.
*Reviewed by Colleen*
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