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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Scoundrel's life told in rich, fast-paced novel

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THE charming scoundrel has been with us since at least the 18th century, when "Sixteen String Jack" went to the gallows for robbery in all his finery and many a fair lady wept a tear.

The psychologists will have their explanations for the popularity of the dashing rogue, but the answer is probably straightforward enough: most of us live fairly humdrum day-to-day lives and the person who doesn't holds for us a seductive allure.

In Sutton, a docu-fiction, J.R. Moehringer re-creates Willie Sutton, famous American bank robber, "one of a handful of men to make the leap from public enemy to folk hero."

Over a 33-year period starting in 1919, Sutton robbed 100 banks, primarily in New York City, amassing more than $2 million (maybe $20 million in today's money). He also spent half of his life in jail.

Moehringer's novel begins in 1969, when Sutton was released from prison on compassionate grounds (failing health), following 17 years of incarceration. By that time Sutton was a folk hero, a man who famously stole from the rich but did not give to the poor, a rogue who was known to have quipped when asked why he robbed banks: "Because that's where the money is."

A print publication has arranged to buy Sutton's story and a reporter and a photographer await him at the prison gates. They want Sutton's "version," and he wants something else: to visit in chronological order all the key haunts in his life.

So the book takes on the feel of a quest, backward through time, as Sutton stands on the street where he grew up (in the poverty of Brooklyn), the arch under a bridge where he and his first love carved initials in concrete, and so on.

Much of the time Sutton is weeping. So it's a quest about loss and about what might have been. It's poignant because what might have been was true love with Bess, a girl from money who loved Willie as much as he loved her. But he was a poor boy. It was not meant to be. A sad story, that.

But there are others: all those robberies. Sutton was not a shoot-'em-up cowboy crook; he carried a gun on his heists, true, but he never shot anyone, and often wore disguises -- which earned him the nickname Willie the Actor; he planned his heists with the exactitude of Doc in The Asphalt Jungle, who, one suspects, was modelled on Sutton.

The template of Willie's life: robbed banks, was caught, was imprisoned, escaped, stole, was recaptured, imprisoned. Repeat. From 1919 to 1952.

Meantime, the public was in love with him: the gentleman thief, Robin Hood of New York. What makes for the popular hero is the masses' empathy with the rogue's background of penury and misfortune, their sense that someone somewhat like themselves is rebalancing the scales of social injustice. Stick it to the Man!

As Sutton retraces the steps of his life, he also goes over the history of America in the 20th century: war followed by depressions leading to war. Repeat. The rich get richer, the poor get -- jail sentences.

It's a rigged system, one of Sutton's confederates says. The only solution is snatch what you can.

But you're doomed when you do that, too, as Sutton's life testifies.

Moehringer's novel is sad but it's beautifully written. Sutton's story is a great one, an irresistible tale of desperate circumstances, derring-do and thwarted love.

Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who penned the 2008 memoir The Tender Bar, brings it to life with fast-paced, clean prose, rich in anecdote and strong in sentiment. Willie Sutton, who loved books, would have appreciated it.

 

Winnipeg writer Wayne Tefs' docu-fiction Bandit: A Portait of Ken Leishman was on McNally Robinson's bestseller list for 16 weeks in 2011. His newly released book is On the Fly, a reflection on the return of the Winnipeg Jets.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 29, 2012 J8

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