BKMT READING GUIDES

Sutton
by J.R. Moehringer

Published: 2012-09-25
Kindle Edition : 352 pages
65 members reading this now
46 clubs reading this now
21 members have read this book
"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 ...
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Introduction

"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 Review

Amazon 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

Excerpt

One

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.

He looks up, adjusts his large scuffed eyeglasses, the bridge mended many times with Scotch tape. Two guards, side by side, the left one fat and soft and pale, as if made from Crisco, the right one tall and scrawny and with a birthmark like a penny on his right cheek.

Left Guard hitches up his belt. On your feet, Sutton. Admin wants you.

Sutton stands.

Right Guard points his baton. What the? You crying, Sutton?

No sir.

Don't you lie to me, Sutton. I can see you been crying.

Sutton touches his cheek. His fingers come away wet. I didn't know I was crying sir.

Right Guard waves his baton at the legal pad. What's that?

Nothing sir.

He asked you what is it, Left Guard says.

Sutton feels his bum leg starting to buckle. He grits his teeth at the pain. My novel sir.

They look around his book-filled cell. He follows their eyes. It's never good when the guards look around your cell. They can always find something if they have a mind to. They scowl at the books along the floor, the books along the metal cabinet, the books along the cold-water basin. Sutton's is the only cell at Attica filled with copies of Dante, Plato, Shakespeare, Freud. No, they confiscated his Freud. Prisoners aren't allowed to have psychology books. The warden thinks they'll try to hypnotize each other.

Right Guard smirks. He gives Left Guard a nudge — get ready. Novel, eh? What's it about?

Just — you know. Life sir.

What the hell does an old jailbird know about life?

Sutton shrugs. That's true sir. But what does anyone know?

Word is leaking out. By noon a dozen print reporters have already arrived and they're huddled at the front entrance, stomping their feet, blowing on their hands. One of them says he just heard — snow on the way. Lots of it. Nine inches at least.

They all groan.

Too cold to snow, says the veteran in the group, an old wire service warhorse in suspenders and black orthopedic shoes. He's been with UPI since the Scopes trial. He blows a gob of spit onto the frozen ground and scowls up at the clouds, then at the main guard tower, which looks to some like the new Sleeping Beauty's Castle in Disneyland.

Too cold to stand out here, says the reporter from the New York Post. He mumbles something disparaging about the warden, who's refused three times to let the media inside the prison. The reporters could be drinking hot coffee right now. They could be using the phones, making last-minute plans for Christmas. Instead the warden is trying to prove some kind of point. Why, they all ask, why?

Because the warden's a prick, says the reporter from Time, that's why.

The reporter from Look holds his thumb and forefinger an inch apart. Give a bureaucrat this much power, he says, and watch out. Stand back.

Not just bureaucrats, says the reporter from The New York Times. All bosses eventually become fascists. Human nature.

The reporters trade horror stories about their bosses, their editors, the miserable dimwits who gave them this god-awful assignment. There's a brand-new journalistic term, appropriated just this year from the war in Asia, frequently applied to assignments like this, assignments where you wait with the herd, usually outdoors, exposed to the elements, knowing full well you're not going to get anything good, certainly not anything the rest of the herd won't get. The term is clusterfuck. Every reporter gets caught in a clusterfuck now and then, it's part of the job, but a clusterfuck on Christmas Eve? Outside Attica Correctional Facility? Not cool, says the reporter from the Village Voice. Not cool.

The reporters feel especially hostile toward that boss of all bosses, Governor Nelson Rockefeller. He of the Buddy Holly glasses and the chronic indecision. Governor Hamlet, says the reporter from UPI, smirking at the walls. Is he going to do this thing or not?

He yells at Sleeping Beauty's Castle: Shit or get off the pot, Nelson! Defecate or abdicate!

The reporters nod, grumble, nod. Like the prisoners on the other side of this thirty-foot wall, they grow restless. The prisoners want out, the reporters want in, and both groups blame the Man. Cold, tired, angry, ostracized by society, both groups are close to rioting. Both fail to notice the beautiful moon slowly rising above the prison.

It's full.

The guards lead Sutton from his cell in D Block through a barred door, down a tunnel and into Attica's central checkpoint — what prisoners call Times Square — which leads to all cell blocks and offices. From Times Square the guards take Sutton down to the deputy warden's office. It's the second time this month that Sutton has been called before the dep. Last week it was to learn that his parole request was denied — a devastating blow. Sutton and his lawyers had been so very confident. They'd won support from prominent judges, discovered loopholes in his convictions, collected letters from doctors vouching that Sutton was close to death. But the three-man parole board simply said no.

The dep is seated at his desk. He doesn't bother looking up. Hello, Willie.

Hello sir.

Looks like we're a go for liftoff.

Sir?

The dep waves a hand over the papers strewn across his desk. These are your walking papers. You're being let out.

Sutton blinks, massages his leg. Let — out? By who sir?

The dep looks up, sighs. Head of corrections. Or Rockefeller. Or both. Albany hasn't decided how they want to sell this. The governor, being an ex-banker, isn't sure he wants to put his name on it. But the head of corrections doesn't want to overrule the parole board. Either way it looks like they're letting you walk.

Walk sir? Why sir?

Fuck if I know. Fuck if I care.

When sir?

Tonight. If the phone will stop ringing and reporters will stop hounding me to let them turn my prison into their private rec room. If I can get these goddamn forms filled out.

Sutton stares at the dep. Then at the guards. Are they joking? They look serious.

The dep turns back to his papers. Godspeed, Willie.

The guards walk Sutton down to the prison tailor. Every man released from a New York State prison gets a release suit, a tradition that goes back at least a century. The last time Sutton got measured for a release suit, Calvin Coolidge was president.

Sutton stands before the tailor's three-way mirror. A shock. He hasn't stood before many mirrors in recent years and he can't believe what he sees. That's his round face, that's his slicked gray hair, that's his hated nose — too big, too broad, with different-size nostrils — and that's the same large red bump on his eyelid, mentioned in every police report and FBI flyer since shortly after World War I. But that's not him — it can't be. Sutton has always prided himself on projecting a certain swagger, even in handcuffs. He's always managed to look dapper, suave, even in prison grays. Now, sixty-eight years old, he sees in the three-way mirror that all the swagger, all the dapper and suave are gone. He's a baggy-eyed stick figure. He looks like Felix the Cat. Even the pencil-thin mustache, once a source of pride, looks like the cartoon cat's whiskers.

The tailor stands beside Sutton, wearing a green tape measure around his neck. An old Italian from the Bronx, with two front teeth the size of thimbles, he shakes a handful of buttons and coins in his pocket as he talks.

So they're letting you out, Willie.

Looks like.

How long you been here?

Seventeen years.

How long since you had a new suit of clothes?

Oh. Twenty years. In the old days, when I was flush, I'd get all my suits custom-made. Silk shirts too. D'Andrea Brothers.

He still remembers the address: 587 Fifth Avenue. And the phone number. Murray Hill 5-5332.

Sure, Tailor says, D'Andrea, they did beautiful work. I still got one of their tuxes. Step up on the block.

Sutton steps up, grunts. A suit, he says. Jesus, I thought the next thing I'd be measured for would be a shroud.

I don't do shrouds, Tailor says. No one gets to see your work.

Sutton frowns at the three reflected Tailors. It's not enough to do nice work? People have to see it?

Tailor spreads his tape measure across Sutton's shoulders, down his arm. Show me an artist, he says, who doesn't want praise.

Sutton nods. I used to feel that way about my bank jobs.

Tailor looks at the triptych of reflected Suttons, winks at the middle one. He stretches the tape measure down Sutton's bum leg. Inseam thirty, he announces. Jacket thirty-eight short.

I was a forty reg when I came in this joint. I ought to sue.

Tailor laughs softly, coughs. What color you want, Willie?

Anything but gray.

Black then. I'm glad they're letting you out, Willie. You've paid your debt.

Forgive us our debts, Willie says, as we forgive our debtors.

Tailor crosses himself.

That from your novel? Right Guard asks.

Sutton and Tailor look at each other.

Tailor points a finger gun at Sutton. Merry Christmas, Willie.

Same to you, friend.

Sutton points a finger gun at Tailor, cocks the thumb hammer. Bang.

From Sutton by J.R. Moehringer. Copyright 2012 by J.R. Moehringer. Excerpted by permission of Hyperion. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. 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”? 1. 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”?

Suggested by Members

We compared Sutton as a bank robber of the 20's and 30's to domestic terrorists today.
by preteenamy (see profile) 09/18/13

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

An Interview with J.R. Moehringer

How did you hear about the story of Willie Sutton, and what made you want to turn it into a novel?

I used to hear about Willie Sutton all the time when I was a boy. My grandfather was fascinated by Sutton, and the fellas who hung out at the corner saloon with my Uncle Charlie spoke about Sutton with a kind of perverse admiration. For them, as for countless Americans, Sutton was a lovable rebel, a gentleman bandit, a kind of Robin Hood. So maybe it’s natural that he popped into my head during the global financial meltdown of 2008. As I watched with horror, and anger, the chaos and suffering caused by banks, I thought of this legendary figure who’d dedicated his life to taking down banks. And I thought this would be an interesting time to write a novel about him.

What are the challenges or benefits of writing a novel that is rooted in historical fact? What forms did the research take?

The benefit is that you have a readymade story, with a basic structure and chronology. You have a real person, with a real date of birth and a real date of death and some indisputable facts in between. You’re grounded by those facts, secured and comforted by them, as is the reader. But you’re also constrained. Sometimes you want the story to go in a completely different direction, and it won’t; the facts won’t let it. Sometimes you want the protagonist to make different choices, better choices, and he simply can’t.

In your Author’s Note you say this book is your “guess” about what happened to Willie when he got out of prison, but it’s also your “wish.” What do you mean by this?

Picturing Willie’s life, trying to divine his motivations, I didn’t always feel as though I was imagining. I was often guided by a kind of wishful novelistic thinking. I believed, or wanted to believe, that Willie was a good person at heart, and thus that’s what he became in my book. A good person gone bad.

Did you take the tour yourself and visit all of the locations in the book?

Every last one.

Why did you make Willie so literate, reading classics, poets like Ezra Pound and Hart Crane?

I didn’t. Life did. That’s one of those indisputable facts about Willie. By all accounts he was a voracious reader. Maybe it was all the time he had on his hands in prison, but I don’t think so. I think he was a born reader. He had a gift for language. I got my hands on a letter he wrote to his publisher and I was amazed by how beautifully it was written.

Do you agree with Sutton about the pervasiveness of myth in our culture? And is the novel still able to contribute to mythmaking?

Yes, I think we’re inundated with myth. It takes different forms, it evolves with technology, but it’s still a vital part of us. Which is good and bad. Myths can mislead us, yes, but they can also help us find meaning. And I think the novel, though it’s on the wane, though it’s been overtaken by other media, can still have mythic power. And I hope it always will.

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
by JenKoster (see profile) 05/28/18

 
  "Sutton"by Espenshade (see profile) 03/26/14

I found this story about Willie Sutton to be especially interesting given that it was based on a real life criminal. I found Sutton to be a brilliant, humorous soul who did what he needed to get by.

 
  "Interesting character study"by dkjaskot (see profile) 03/26/14

This was a fascinating look into the psyche of one of America's most infamous (and popular!) bank robbers. It was an easy read and quite a page turner, with a surprising twist at the end. Great book!

 
  "Interesting"by preteenamy (see profile) 09/18/13

There were several key phrases that caught my attention. I thought it interesting several main characters were never given proper names, but that also showed the importance they served to th... (read more)

 
  "Sutton"by Beth4Books (see profile) 09/05/13

 
  "Superb writiing"by ralphb215 (see profile) 06/04/13

 
  "A biography disguised as a novel"by rowchick (see profile) 05/29/13

Once you accept that this is just a fictionalized biography of a once-famous bank robber who has a unique memory of his past, you will enjoy the ride.

 
  "Sutton"by gazzingo (see profile) 05/02/13

Loved getting a glimpse into the life and mind of Willie Sutton!

 
  "Sutton"by mkrupiak (see profile) 04/29/13

This was a terrific story. You feel compassion for this bank robber right from the beginning and you maintain it till the very end, which is when you learn things are not always what they seem to be!... (read more)

 
  "I'm not a historical ficion buff, but this was excellent!"by rselmser (see profile) 03/15/13

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