Adam Lashinsky
San Francisco Chronicle

Sutton

By J.R. Moehringer?(Hyperion, 334 pages, $27.99)

Long before Lehman Bros. nearly cratered the global financial system, before Citibank and Bank of America became too big to fail, before a J.P. Morgan trader lost billions seemingly overnight, Americans have hated banks and the people who run them. Former journalist J.R. Moehringer, author of the memoir The Tender Bar and co-author of Open, by Andre Agassi, harnesses that persistent antipathy in his debut novel, Sutton, a gripping yarn about the real-life bank robber Willie Sutton.

Sutton is rigorously researched and colorfully reimagined, and its protagonist is shockingly lovable. Sutton was the convict who, when asked why he robbed banks, responded (probably apocryphally): “That’s where the money is.” Moehringer’s novel is built on a foundation of solid facts, and there couldn’t be a better moment for a sympathetic narrative about a one-man Occupy movement who did more than protest banks.

Sutton’s multi-decade crime spree extended from the 1910s to the 1950s, when he was caught and incarcerated for the last time. (He had escaped from jail more than once.) Along the way he became a populist legend, the bank robber who studied his craft, never killed anyone and used elaborate disguises to evade capture. In Moehringer’s succinct description: “Smarter than Machine Gun Kelly, saner than Pretty Boy Floyd, more likable than Legs Diamond, more peaceable than Dutch Schultz, more romantic than Bonnie and Clyde, Sutton saw bank robbery as high art and went about it with an artist’s single-minded zeal.”

The real-life Sutton was released from prison on Christmas Eve 1969 and spent the next day with a newspaper reporter who wrote a forgettable account of their tour of the scenes of Sutton’s exploits around New York City. Moehringer crafts the narrative of Sutton’s life around a retelling of this jaunt, as the old thief regales the reporter with stories and, more significantly, remembers the events for the reader in flashback narration.

The reader of Sutton won’t know — and shouldn’t care — what exactly is historically accurate versus the parts that Moehringer dreamed up. Its sometimes winning but ultimately psychotic protagonist allows the reader to indulge a distaste for banks without necessarily endorsing bank robbers.

Part of Sutton’s appeal is that he was intelligent, self-educated and exceedingly well read. He used his time in prison to plot escapes and read the classics. He also wrote fiction and a memoir, providing fodder of questionable accuracy that Moehringer was able to weave into his tale.

Through Sutton’s eyes, the reader feels the pangs of hunger of growing up poor at the beginning of the 20th century. The philosopher-criminal also provides a fresh perspective on the most important news of the year he is released from prison. He tells the reporter that he and his prison mates couldn’t get enough of the televised coverage of Apollo 11: “Because the moon shot is mankind’s ultimate escape. And because the astronauts were in one-sixth gravity. In the joint, you feel like gravity is six times stronger.”

Sutton educates, entertains, delights and speaks to the (flawed) human condition. It will appeal to lovers of historical fiction, true-crime narratives and mystery novels. The banking industry may not welcome it.