Vulnerability and Glamour, Past and Present



Sutton, by J. R. Moehringer


Well, well. A Pulitzer-winning journalist that writes excellent historical fiction. One of the things that draws writers to historical fiction is a compulsion to fill in the unknown/unknowable gaps about events or characters and make the made-up gap fillers seem right in keeping with the known. But I should give a bit about Moehringer’s story at this point.

Willie Sutton, notorious bank robber of the early twentieth century, has just been let out of Attica Prison and is in his sixties. He’s suffered a life of hard knocks and it’s clear he won’t last much longer. A New York reporter and photographer corral him as he’s let out of Attica, and he cons them into driving him around the city so he can relive the significant events of his life: brutal beatings from his brothers, his life-long obsession with a girl named Bess, banks robbed, places he’s stayed on the lam, bars he’s drunk in. He’s trying to summarize his life at these two lads’ expense. But the jaunt ends, and with great irony involved, Moehringer allows the reporter to become obsessed with Sutton’s life.

It would have been easy to have cast Sutton in a society-done-me-wrong role, or to have written the story with an alternate version of Sutton’s life hovering over the famed robber’s – and the author’s – lives, an “I wish I’d done this here instead of that” rueful telling, but that wouldn’t have been in keeping with Sutton’s life. Instead Sutton simply wants a retrospective before he settles in to wait for the Grim Reaper.


Moehringer’s prose is wry to the point of tartness in portraying Sutton, and his dialogue is as good as any by the best crime novelists. His alternating past with present in a way that allows them to be as seamless as past and present can be is excellent. In the end, the author gives us a stellar story and a sensitive character rendering.


My rating: 19 of 20 stars





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