Willie Sutton almost certainly never said, when asked why he robbed banks, “that’s where the money is.” That line is mostly what he’s known for, of course. It’s why he’s in Bartlett’s. But he didn’t say it, because it wasn’t true. Willie Sutton started off as a jewel thief, and liked robbing jewelry stores. They were easier than banks, and if you had a good fence, they paid better. No, Willie Sutton robbed banks because he hated banks. Everyone did, back in the thirties. Which is why a bank robber, like Willie ‘The Actor’ Sutton (and Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde and all the others) became a folk hero.
Sutton, a first novel by a sports reporter, J. R. Moehringer, is about a single day in 1969, the day Willie ‘The Actor’ was released from prison, pardoned by the governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller. Sutton agreed to spend his first day out of prison with a reporter and a photographer, a day-long exclusive, for which he was paid. Moehringer uses that day as a framing device to tell the story of America’s most popular and successful bank robber. The historic Willie Sutton was an exceptionally well-read and cultured man, and a fine writer–he wrote two memoirs, sold his story for good money to pay for retirement. He spent a lot of time in jail, and he spent his time there reading and writing. The two memoirs are really good, well-written, smart, funny. But they don’t agree. Later in life, when he became a celebrity, a frequent guest on Johnny Carson, he told stories, wonderful, funny bank robbery stories; those stories also can’t be reconciled with his published memoirs. The simplest biographical facts change. So what really happened? What is the truth of Willie Sutton’s life? Moehringer tells us that his novel is his best guess. Then he adds, “it’s also my wish.” Mine too, now.
I got Sutton for Father’s Day, a gift from my daughter. Put off reading it for awhile, and then picked it up and was hooked; learned it’s one of those two a.m. books, the kind of book where you think, ‘one more chapter and I’ll go to bed.’ The kind of book where you’re torn–you can’t wait to see what happens next, so you want to read fast, but you also love the prose so much you want to read slowly too, just to bask.
Voice. My gosh, the voice. Everything works, not a misstep. Every word perfect. Every sentence right.
1969, right? Just after the moon landing. Here’s Willie Sutton (via Moehringer) on the moon landing. A long quote here, but it’s uncuttable:
Everyone praises Armstrong and Aldrin, Sutton says. But the real hero on that moon shot was the third guy, Michael Collins, the Irishman in the back seat.
Photographer gapes at Sutton. Collins? He didn’t even set foot on the moon.
Exactly. Collins was in the space capsule all alone. While his partners were down there collecting rocks, Collins was manning the wheel. Twenty six times he circled the moon–solo. Imagine? He was completely out of radio contact. Couldn’t talk to his partners. Couldn’t talk to NASA. He was cut off from every living soul in the universe. If he panicked, if he fucked up, if he pushed the wrong button, he’d strand Armstrong and Aldrin. Or if they did something wrong, if their lunar car broke down, if they couldn’t restart the thing, if they couldn’t blast off and reconnect with Collins forty-five miles above the moon, he’d have to head back to earth all by himself. Leave his partners to die. Slowly running out of air. While watching earth in the distance. It was such a real possibility, Collins returning to earth by himself, that Nixon wrote up a speech to the nation. Collins, now that’s one stone-cold wheelman. That’s the guy you want sitting at the wheel of a gassed up Ford when you’re inside a bank.
That’s a throw-away, a bit of conversation Moehringer imagines between Sutton and the photographer and reporter, early in the book. But it’s so clean, such a smart, powerful piece of prose. The whole book’s this good.
The research feels effortless, capturing New York in the teens, the Twenties, the Thirties, the Sixties. Irish town and Coney Island and Brooklyn. When Willie gets caught–he got caught three times, escaped from three maximum security prisons–the cops crow: “we caught the Babe Ruth of bank robbers.” Willie growls, “I’m a Dodger fan. I’m the Jackie Robinson of bank robbers.”
And relevant. I got it in paperback, and in the back of the book is an interview with the author. He talks about starting it in 2008, in the middle of the world-wide financial crisis. When banks, once again, screwed America. What caused the Great Depression. Yes, the Wall Street crash in 1929. Also, bank failures, especially the failure of the Bank of the United States, where 200 million dollars in deposits were lost, and depositors committed suicide and the bank’s management sold stock to depositors under a one year guarantee against loss they then didn’t honor. That’s also in the book.
Also, in 1935, Parker Brothers sold the first sets of Monopoly, the board game about American capitalism. And Parker Brothers, to reflect current reality, recently got rid of jail. Go directly to jail, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 dollars? Remember, get out of jail free cards? That’s gone now, no longer part of the game Parker Brother sells. Makes sense. Monopoly is now a game where people go around collecting money from people, and never, ever, go to jail. Because that’s where we are.
Okay, not all banks are evil and bank robbery is both illegal and immoral, and Willie Sutton, though he never used violence, was a career criminal, albeit a charming one. I get why he was a folk hero, just like I understand Occupy Wall Street. But his program for reform was criminal, while Occupy’s was merely ineffectual. What we want is for banking to become boring again. We want banks to go back to what they once were–institutions of unquestioned integrity, lenders with sense and discretion and if possible, some compassion. Those banks do exist; we need more of them. Above all, we need federal regulation, with real consequences for bankers that, oh, I don’t know, bundle crappy mortgages into crappy bonds and then speculate wildly and irresponsibly. We need jails. Willie Sutton spent most of his adult life in prison,and should have. I’d just feel better if the management of Goldman Sachs was in the next cell.
Willie Sutton didn’t rob banks because that’s where the money was. He robbed banks because he hated banks. Meanwhile, J.D. Moehringer has written a phenomenal novel about a brilliant bank robber. Let’s admire it, but perhaps without lionizing a crook. But let’s also put jail back in Monopoly. Can’t we do all those things at once?