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BKMT READING GUIDES
by J.R. Moehringer
Kindle Edition : 352 pages
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"Electrifying." --Booklist (starred)
Willie Sutton was born in the Irish slums of Brooklyn in 1901, and he came of age at a time when banks were out of control. Sutton saw only one way out and only one way to win the girl of his dreams. So began the career of America's most successful bank robber. During three decades Sutton became so good at breaking into banks, the FBI put him on its first-ever Most Wanted List. But the public rooted for the criminal who never fired a shot, and when Sutton was finally caught for good, crowds at the jail chanted his name.
In J.R. Moehringer's retelling, it was more than need or rage that drove Sutton. It was his first love. And when he finally walked free--a surprise pardon on Christmas Eve, 1969--he immediately set out to find her.
"What Hilary Mantel did for Thomas Cromwell and Paula McLain for Hadley Hemingway . . . J.R. Moehringer now does for bank robber Willie Sutton." --Newsday
"Thoroughly absorbing. . . . Filled with vibrant and colorful re-creations of not one but several times in the American past." --Kevin Baker, author of Strivers Row
"[J.R. Moehringer] has found an historical subject equal to his vivid imagination, gimlet journalistic eye, and pitch-perfect ear for dialogue. By turns suspenseful, funny, romantic, and sad--in short, a book you won't be able to put down." --John Burnham Schwartz, author of Reservation Road and The Commoner
Editorial ReviewAmazon Best Books of the Month, September 2012: When Willie Sutton walked from Attica Prison on Christmas, 1969, the Irish, Brooklyn-born bank robber reemerged as a folk hero for American everymen fed up with a financial system that favored the rich. Infamous for his flair for disguise, Willie the Actor and his crew shook down 100 banks between the 1920s and his final arrest in 1952. He claimed to have never killed anyone, but he spent over half his adult life in prison, where he saved his sanity by reading classics and meticulously plotting audacious escapes--some successful. In Sutton, J.R. Moehringer (The Tender Bar) performs a similarly audacious feat, tunneling through layers of legend and emerging with a novel that hums with the truth of Sutton's life, with all its dramatic contradictions. Shifting easily between Willie's first Christmas of freedom and the pivotal events of his past, Moehringer's tale of how lost love and desperation compelled Sutton to feats of (admittedly criminal) brilliance rivals those in The Shawshank Redemption. --Mari Malcolm
He's writing when they come for him.
He's sitting at his metal desk, bent over a yellow legal pad, talking to himself, and to her — as always, to her. So he doesn't notice them standing at his door. Until they run their batons along the bars. ... view entire excerpt...
Discussion Questions1. How is Willie Sutton an atypical criminal, unlike those more commonly found in gangster movies and noir novels?
2. Before they set out on their journey, Sutton tells Reporter that newspapers deal in myths, as do “comic books, Horatio Alger, the Bible, the whole American Dream.” Sutton adds, “I used to buy in . . . That’s what got me so mixed up in the first place.” What does Sutton mean? What myths have been highly influential in your own life?
3. For good or ill, how did growing up in Irish Town shape Willie? What did he learn from the neighborhood code of honor? From seeing his parents struggle financially? How did his abuse at the hands of his brothers forever alter the trajectory of his life?
4. Discuss Willie’s best friends Eddie and Happy. What do they provide for Willie, and what do they cost him? How do they mirror his brothers?
5. What’s the larger significance of the brutal scene at the slaughterhouse? Does it come to mind at other moments in the book, such as when Willie crosses paths with Arnold Schuster?
6. Sutton tells Reporter and Photographer that the “real hero” of the 1969 moon landing was Mike Collins, the one astronaut who never set foot on the lunar surface. What does Sutton mean? In what ways does this remark open a window into Willie’s worldview?
7. What role does Daddo, a relatively minor character, play in Willie’s development and later life?
8. Discuss the symbolism of eyes and the connection among characters who lose their sight or suffer some eye injury—Daddo, Eddie, Margaret, Arnold Schuster.
9. Willie flatly claims: “Money. Love. There’s not a problem that isn’t created by one or the other. And there’s not a problem that can’t be solved by one or the other.” Do you agree?
10. At the start of Part Two we learn that Willie is fascinated by the safe “as an intellectual subject, as an abstract concept.” How does the idea of a safe, of something valuable locked inside something impenetrable, recur throughout the story?
11. What do we learn about Willie through his interactions with Wingy?
12. While at Eastern State, Willie receives an off-the-cuff but elaborate diagnosis from the prison psychiatrist. Do you agree with the doctor? Is he too harsh? Too soft? Is it possible the doctor is the only person who ever sees Willie for what he really is?
13. Do you think Willie is a good person? If so, how to explain his inability to live by society’s rules? If not, how to explain his dedication to nonviolence, his love of literature, his genuine empathy for the suffering of others? And if he’s a rare mix of both good and bad, did his punishments fit his crimes?
14. Sutton seems struck and slightly bothered by the notion that he’s not a hero but an antihero. Which does he seem to you—hero or antihero? Or neither?
15. Willie argues that to live in society, to survive, each of us must take something away from somebody. Each of us must rob. Is he being glib, or does he make a valid point?
16. When Sutton meets Bess’s granddaughter, Kate, he provokes her to reveal a different version of his affair with Bess. Does he accept her version or simply ignore it? Which version of the novel’s love story do you believe—the one Willie remembers or the one Kate heard from her grandmother? Does the scene with Kate change how you feel about Willie? Does it make him seem delusional, or does it simply raise the idea that there is much about him—and Bess—that we’ll never know? Do you agree with Reporter, in the final chapter, when he muses: “All love is delusional”?
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