Published by Blue Door
There is safety as well as excitement in the thumping of a voyeur’s heart, adrenaline-charged from the comfort of an armchair. ‘You’re all about the experience. Until experience comes knocking,’ Sutton tells his handcuffed-by-request, now panicking Photographer. Boy, did experience come knocking for Willie Sutton.
The most famous bank robber of his day, Willie Sutton meticulously crafted his bank robberies, deliberately never killing anyone, elaborately disguising himself to evade capture in his decades-long war against noxious banks. Upon his final release from prison on Christmas Eve 1969, Sutton granted an exclusive interview to a New York newspaper and spent an entire day with a reporter and a photographer visiting the scenes of his crimes and vibrant life. The article, Moehringer tells us, was disappointingly brief and inaccurate. So Moehringer details his guess as to what happened on that day, and during those of the preceding 68 years.
What emerges is a man fantasising to believe himself more sinned against than sinning. A thief uncomfortable with his nickname, Willie the Actor is adept at earning it, romanticising his guilt even as all closest to him are destroyed, ‘I didn’t think it was wrong. I knew it was wrong.’ Reporter and Photographer want to endgame Willie’s history and uncover who murdered Arnie Schuster, the Boy Scout rat who put an end to Willie’s plastic surgery-assisted life-in-hiding and became the Judas of Brooklyn. But Willie wants to start his retrospective at the beginning, where ‘the air tastes familiar. Like a dishrag soaked in river water’ and ‘Life was one long argument. Which nobody ever won.’ So commences a day-long road trip along the streets of New York, and across seven decades of memories.
The dialogue is sharp and witty, the language muscular in this vivid, beautifully researched, and convincing narrative. Here’s a ‘Hatchet face, smile like a wince’ and there’s ‘a man whose face looks like an ass. Fat, pale, globular, the only thing missing is a line down the center.’ It’s rooted in its decades: Barnum leads elephants across the Brooklyn Bridge, Brecht’s new play is linguistic currency, Hooverlands spring up, Roosevelt springs in. The hunger and violence of a childhood in early twentieth-century Brooklyn are stark. Beatings by cops are sickeningly brutal. The terror of incarceration, of months in isolation is upsetting and disturbing. Willie’s powers of observation, creativity and patience are such that, if he’d been sent there, Sutton may have proved the only man able to escape from Alcatraz.
Moehringer’s Sutton is a myth mythologising his life and times. This psychotic philosopher woos and wins us before we can resist him. We see him grow up, watch as his efforts are trampled on, feel his heart break. Here is a self-educated, extremely well-read gentleman who ‘when weary of his studies…simply rereads Wuthering Heights.’ With subtle but biting commentary on the media and banks, our obsession with love, money and thrills, Moehringer exposes what a tangled web we weave. I had to remind myself that this is invention because, like the author, it became my wish. ‘Ah New York. You stink. Please let me stay.’