Monday, November 12, 2012

This novel steals you, SUTTON by J.R. Moehringer


This novel steals you, SUTTON by J.R. Moehringer (Hyperion)

I was grabbed by  SUTTON, a novel about the famous bank robber from the Great Depression. Sutton is aspiring and resigned, flinty and sensitive, brilliant and a fool. He got under my skin with his soft noirish voice and the pathos of his thwarted life. I heard Moehringer talk about researching this novel and the odd coincidence that his mother, once a bank secretary, witnessed one of Sutton's robberies. It's the kind of coincidence Sutton details, and these telling details have more weight than bare facts in the elusive life of SUTTON .

It's a fact that "Willie the Actor" was released from Attica prison on Christmas Eve 1969, after serving 17 years. (The irony that Gov.Rockefeller, a former banker, signed the order was probably not lost on Sutton). His lawyer made a deal with a newspaper for an exclusive, so he spent his first night secluded with a reporter and photographer.  SUTTON, the fictional biography, imagines what might have occurred that evening. 

The young reporter and grizzled hippie photographer just want to drive him to the site of Arnold Schuster's murder. The man who finally identified Willie and was gunned down by persons unknown, is the story their editors want. But Willie agrees only if they take that event in  chronological order. They must visit all the addresses important to him or none of them. First stop is Brooklyn's "Irish Town," New York's "Vinegar Hill," a depressed place with lots of poor hopeless people. That's Willie's take, as he stares at the tenement where he grew up, the youngest son of a blacksmith and his grief-stricken religious wife. He looks inert, while he relives his miserable childhood. For years he was beaten by his sadistic older brothers but he never told his parents. The code of the streets was you don't "rat" and he preferred to be brutalized to being a coward. 

Another stop is the house his parents lived, after his father's business disappeared with the horse and buggy. Finally, Willie's free of his brothers, but his prospects have greatly lessened. The gifted student his mother hoped would become a priest, graduates in the top of his middle school class but his schooling is over. He has to get a job. He will always mourn the loss of education. The reporter and photographer witness his extreme emotion but when they ask him about his childhood, he only says he was "an active little monkey." Though his answers to them are elusive, the reader gets Willie's thoughts in Italic. The photographer gets closer than the reporter with his research files. When he tells Willie cameras tell the truth, Willie answers cameras always lie. Both are correct. While the shots of the sick old man in reverie are true, the meaning is more than the image.  

Willie hides that he's very ill and this may be his last night on earth. Visiting the sites of his life, he’s saying goodbye. And he’s got a folded paper with a crucial address.  But he’s not there yet. The car goes to Warranty Trust Bank, where Willie got a job through his boyhood friend, Happy. Willie proves a courteous punctual employee, admired for his work ethic. Management says he’ll have a future, just a few months before the bank has to lay him off. Sadly, he folds up his banking clothes and goes back to circling the want ads, discouraged that most jobs want more education than he’s got. Briefly he works on a construction site, before the Depression again catches up. He loses himself in the reading room of the public library. And, though often hungry, Willie doesn’t resort to crime. In his story, that happens after he falls for the most beautiful girl in the world.

It is love at first sight, though Bess first spotted handsome Happy with his ukulele. They meet again by chance on the Coney Island boardwalk. He’s so smitten, he can barely talk.  After her father disapproves of Willie, they resolve to elope. She begs him to rob her father’s safe. Willie enjoys his brief love on the run, but tragically they are apprehended before they can marry. When they get off with suspended sentences and she's whisked off to Europe, Willie's distraught. He wants to get enough money to keep her. So when  Happy suggests he meet the Professor, an expert safecracker, he agrees. The stop at the professor’s upper West Side apartment evokes nostalgic memories. Here was Willie's first encounter with art and culture, a museum of safes, beautiful artifacts, and the socialite fence who bought the “ice.”

When Willie goes out on his own, he specializes in banks.  Working with Happy, he makes enough money to get a big apartment and fine clothes. He hide jars of money in parks and thinks he may have enough, when he learns of Bess' wedding.  Visiting the church, he feels the shock of her going toward another man. Then, when Happy's shot, without love or true friendship, Willie’s fortunes decline. He’s betrayed by confederates he knows better than to trust. And inevitably, when he doesn't follow his intuition, he's nabbed by police.
There's a ritual of him being beaten by cops and, true to the never "rat" code, giving out no information. 

There's also the pattern to his adjustment to prison. He had some easy time, as a secretary to a psychologist, who gave him insight into his own motivations, or a gardener for a painter. Always, he was immersed in books. Philosophy, religion, economics, history, plays, books on acting--from Aristotle to Bishop Sheen, Willie enjoys the education, yet whether he's suffering or tending roses, he's unable to refuse the whispered challenge of escape.    

From Eastern State Penitentiary to Holmsburg to Attica, he meticulously plans routes, timing, types of locks to be manipulated and even the course for a tunnel..Always he's haunted by his lost love. One time, he says Bess drove a getaway car, before returning to her husband. (Though research showed it may have been the mother of his daughter, who's unmentioned by Willie). Another time he learns Bess has been abused by her husband and is pregnant, hiding on Coney Island.. He tracks her down and offers her comfort and escape. But she's gone when he returns. 

His most successful hiding place was on an island that housed impoverished elderly women, where he worked as a janitor and was remembered as gallant and kind. He even left money for proper funerals. Each time he’s retaken, he suffers incredible beatings and extended solitary confinements. Though he might come to the edge of sanity, he endures and never "rats." For this he receives the grudging admiration of  cops, jailors and gangsters like "Dutch," who value the old code.  

During his last freedom spree, Willie falls in love and finally creates a kind of life, when Arnold Schuster happens to enter the same subway car and recognize him. For bringing down the famous bank robber, Schuster gets many death threats. In depression era America, many people considered banks corrupt bloodsuckers, so Willie was admired as the robber who got even but never hurt anyone. Oddly, when Schuster was gunned down, the public turned on Willie.  

He returned to Attica for yet another beating, but Schuster’s assassin remained a mystery. As Willie stood  with the photographer and reporter in the alley where he died, they realize there will be no bonanza, no secret revealed. Whether Schuster's death was due to an independent crazy, a Willie Sutton fan, or a gang hit on the rat who sent him back to prison, is anyone’s guess. And in the novel, Willie takes the car after that site. His deal's done and he goes to the address on the paper. 

Bess’ granddaughter helps him find some resolution about the great love that might have been. And at the  surprising end, when you get Bess' viewpoint, this is a novel about memory. What’s elusive about Willie’s story is a matter of consciousness. This novel explores the gap between what we believe occurred, what facts say, and the  viewpoint of another. SUTTON is finally a meditation on life-- the mysterious interaction between personality, background and fate.  As Willie probes his destiny, the reader experiences the huge divide between the facts of physical reality, emotional truth, and spiritual necessity. Money has never been so immaterial.

SW