Thursday, October 22, 2015

October's Book: Sutton

Sutton by J.R. Moehringer
Creative Journalism/Historical Fiction (2012 - 334 pp.)

Sutton is ostensibly a novel, although the qualifier "A Novel" that appears on the front of the book is much needed. It is by a ghostwriter, follows the life of a not only real but famous man, it is based largely on real events, and the time period it covers is clearly well researched. In the Author's Note at the start of the book, Moehringer acknowledges the massive gaps in information about Sutton, and of how Sutton's life could have gone, says "This is my guess." It is a compelling guess that covers fictionalized descriptions of things that happened all the time in Sutton's various environments, from Brooklyn's Irish Town to Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia. Fictional as the individual events are, including many in-depth conversations, the story they follow is well documented in every major American newspaper.

Sutton's many bank heists are covered in detail elsewhere. What Moehringer adds is a personal touch that follows Sutton through the first 68 years of his life. Maybe Sutton did not have vivid memories of collapsed horses on the streets of Irish Town in the 1900s, or of a childhood friends comparing a sheep to Judas, but people back then did.

Highlights of Sutton's human nature include his first hot dog* (65), his discussion with Mr. Endner about the value of a silver dollar (84), his bar night with Hughie McLoon** shortly before McLoon's assassination (155-157), and Sutton's contemplation of the difference between bad people and bad acts. (236-237) This is a non-exhaustive list, though, and I am sure the peak moments are different for every reader. My favourite thing all these have in common? None of them directly involve a bank heist. As much as I enjoy reading about the mechanics of crime,*** the human side of the story is often just as compelling. Moehringer gets its right. Whether he researched Sutton's heists much, I honestly could not tell you.

This may be a product of when Sutton was in prison, or about extant records of what he was doing, but Sutton's thirties vanish. To the reader, it seems like one moment Sutton's a late-20-something landscaping for Funck and the next, there is news of World War II. (This excepts Sutton's 1931 robbery spree, of course.) After being treated to so much detail about Sutton's childhood, including his rocky adolescence, to have a decade go so quickly is surprising. It shows how quickly life can get away, especially while incarcerated. To Sutton's credit, his penchant for escaping did not dim during those years. It makes the reader wonder why 1952, Sutton's last incarceration, ends the book instead of leading to yet another crazy escape story in the 1952-1969 range.

Part of what makes Sutton so fun is that the reader can take as much, or as little, time as he or she wants with it. My interest in 20th-century American culture, notably including crime, made me eager to read the back stories of minor - in Sutton-verse - characters like Dutch Schultz and Max "Boo Boo" Hoff. In the news, these men had profiles at least as large as Sutton's, if not larger, and are easy topics if I wanted to write a few dozen more pages here. A less digging-inclined reader may simply accept Moehringer's version of Sutton's version of who they are and read this page-turner at airport book speed.

Thanks to my lovely lady for not only recommending this book but actually buying it for me.

Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 7

*Sutton's first hot dog, by the book, is consumed in 1917. The hot dog in its modern form was only released to the public in 1904, in St. Louis. For a boy who had never ventured to Upstate New York, let alone the Midwest, and who mostly survived on vegetables and grains, a hot dog was exhilarating.
**Not made up. He was a real guy.
***I read Practically Perfect by Dale Brawn but completely neglected to blog about it. It has its problems, as books tend to do, but is worth the read. It helps to have a good Canadian crime book.

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