The choice to tell this story from the day Willie Sutton was released from prison in 1969 felt like an awkward decision to me right from the start. I know quite a bit about the real Willie Sutton and was looking forward to this novelization. If you don't, have that background though, why would you care about a submissive ex-con? The story jumps back and forth through Willie's history to his journey on Xmas day '69 with a reporter and photographer to the places in New York that were important to him. Unfortunately the reporter is portrayed as a stereotypical straight arrow who can't get with Willie's unconventional manner of doing things, while the photographer is portrayed as the worst kind of hippie with all the hippie stereotype including a fringe jacket, Soul On Ice in his camera bag, and a girlfriend who's a masseuse. Could I make this up? I guess J.R. Moehringer thinks he did.
The story paints Willie Sutton, arguably the most successful bank robber in US history, as a very romantic guy who did everything he is accused of to win the heart of the girl who first convinced him to commit a crime. Main problem being, according to history, the girl in question was with his friend and Willie was probably the brains of the operation. This problem is addressed, albeit bizarrely, at the end of the book.
Moehringer cuts Sutton an awful lot of slack. He implies that the state of New York failed to help the Sutton family transition when the blacksmith trade became obsolete. He shows us that Willie, though clearly of gifted intelligence, was not adequately educated for useful work.He paints a graphic picture of a boy bullied and abused until violence seems like the only alternative to him. He shows us that intelligent people when faced with unemployment will more frequently turn to crime than accept underpaid work. All of these factors are as true today as they were in the 1920s and I'm sure that is Moehringer's point in bringing them to our attention. While they may be true, they seem more significant to the author's message than they do to the story. The late Donald Westlake, who under the pseudonym Richard Stark wrote the Parker 'heist' novels, made many of these same observations unobtrusively while his books were a lot more fun to read.
When all is said, I was pretty disappointed in Mr. Moehringer's speculations. He does point out that Willie Sutton wrote two accounts of his life which do not correspond with each other. I've only read one of these, I, Willie Sutton, and recommend it to interested readers over this present work.
Dylan Baker did an excellent job with pretentious, pseudo philosophical dialog and one stereotypical character after another.
In my estimation, Willie Sutton deserves better.
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