Sunday, 10 November 2013

Review - Sutton by J.R. Moehringer
By J. R. Moehringer
Narrated by Dylan Baker
Publisher: Hyperion
Pub. Date: 2012
Duration: 15.12 hours
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At my block book club, each member shares about the book he/she read and liked during the previous month. One member shared with excitement about Sutton So I had a very long trip planned by car, I decided to listen to it. What a great experience it was!
In the French literature, we have a long tradition of the "gentleman cambrioleur", a thief who is at the same time a gentleman, robbing without violence. The most famous one is Arsène Lupin, a character invented by Maurice Leblanc  in 1906.

But the "gentleman thief" is not necessarily a fictive character only. Indeed, Willie "The Actor" Sutton (1901-1980) was a notorious bank robber in the US, even making it to the first FBI's list of Ten Most Wanted Fugitives. He managed to escape several times from maximum-security prisons. As the legend and folk hero he had become, crowds cheered him when he was finally released from Attica State Prison on Christmas Eve 1969.

To avoid being bothered forever by journalists, he made a deal to spend a day with a newspaper reporter and photographer, taking them on a tour of his life.
This book is precisely organized  around what that day might have been – Sutton left two autobiographies, but as they contradict each other, the author had some margins to write a believable fiction based on some known facts.

I really enjoyed a lot the structure of the book: the reporter and the photographer follow the map Willie has given them, and with him they drive from place to place, as each address appears chronologically in his life: the place where he grew up, the first bank he robbed, etc. Each place then allows Willie to remember and through these flashbacks, he tells the journalists and us the readers what happened then and there.
Moehringer did a great job at showing how growing in the slums of Brooklyn, in very poor conditions, somewhat predestined Willie to his grim future. It was appalling to see how the economic conditions – the Depression – put obstacles all along, even though he did try several times to find a honest job and stick to it. And no one can be surprised at the hate he developed for banks.

The book is full of adventure, as Willie retells his different bank robberies and escapes, for instance; there’s also humor, as the reporter and photographer realize that Willie is still very much “the actor”, and they end up discovering that they may have become themselves his prisoners for a day.

I really had the feeling I was getting to know Willie, with his appalling first years, growing up with jealous and violent brothers, with his sentimental life, his amazing love of books – he developed quite a reading program in prison, and his mental make-up. 

There are also lots of elements of mystery, especially around his love for Bess. I’m not going to give spoilers, but the end of the book invites the reader to reconsider every word of Sutton, and wonder if he would have made it or not in different economic times: was he indeed a victim of society and economic turbulences? Or did his love of money make him imagine things he built all his life around, and develop different personalities? Was he mentally strong or extremely fragile? Was he meticulous or totally obsessive? Is he worthy to be the hero he was in the mind of many? 

At a time when banks seem again to have some more than prominent role in our society, I think this is really timely to be remembered the life of the most famous bank robbers.

Thoughts on the audiobook:
I had never heard the narrator Dylan Baker before. I highly recommend you to listen to this book. Baker is superb, with great different voices for each character in the book. He manages to give an idea of the social milieu behind each one. He conveys extremely well the description of poverty, and the mystery scenes leave you on the edge of your seat, as the suspense is so well rendered. Baker’s voice is fantastic at giving you an idea of Willie’s very complex personality, as his tone of voice changes depending on the circumstances; you can feel Sutton still act in from of you, the listener.
Are you planning a long trip? Invite Willie in your car, you will not be bored a minute!

 *Disclaimer - I checked out this audiobook at my public library*

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