Friday, 28 September 2012 00:00
J.R. Moehringer’s stock as an author has risen so high that his publisher is sending him this week on a national book tour which concludes in November. It will include a stop on Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m., at the North Hempstead Country Club in Port Washington, where he’ll be the featured speaker at a $50 per person ticketed fundraiser for Friends of the Manhasset Public Library.
Moehringer, who won a Pulitzer Prize while at the Los Angeles Times, spent part of his youth in Manhasset. He is promoting these days the just-published Sutton (Hyperion), his first novel. The book is based in part on the life of Willie Sutton (1901-1980), an infamous New York City bank robber.
There’s little doubt Moehringer has found a compelling literary niche—getting inside, and trying to explain, the mind of a complicated protagonist. In 2005’s The Tender Bar, that role was played by Moehringer himself. His memoir about coming of age with few male role models besides the regular patrons of Publicans, a Plandome Road, Manhasset tavern which sat where Edison’s is today, quickly and understandably climbed The New York Times bestseller list. Indeed, it was so widely praised that retired tennis star Andre Agassi reportedly read The Tender Bar and recruited Moehringer to help Agassi write Open, Agassi’s 2010 autobiography. Open also drew critical raves and generated impressive book sales.
The promotional materials for Sutton posed this question: Are Bank Robbers Worse than Bankers? If Sutton accurately depicts what most bank robbers are like, I’m going to say bank robbers have fewer good stories to tell, and are less interesting, than bankers.
Moehringer’s jumping-off-point to tell Sutton’s story, in the form of historical fiction, is Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s real-life commutation of Sutton’s jail sentence on Christmas Day 1969. Before the governor made the decision to release him, legendary newspaper columnist Pete Hamill wrote that, “If Willie Sutton had been a GE board member, or a former water commissioner, instead of the son of an Irish blacksmith, he would be on the street right now.” That was true, and Sutton at the time had spent the previous 17 years in prison and was said to be in failing health, so Hamill added: “Willie Sutton should be able to sit and watch the ducks in Prospect Park one more time, or go to Nathan’s for a hot dog, or call up some old girl for a drink.”
Having read Hamill’s observations early in Sutton, I eagerly awaited the appearance of a softer, kinder bank robber. Well, Moehringer clearly did a deep dive into all things Willie Sutton, combing through his writings, as well as FBI and newspaper accounts of his exploits. But it is difficult to discern why he was so interested in reimagining this guy’s life. The available record indicates Sutton befriended other criminals, robbed banks, and spent years in jail. The unarmed CEO of Washington Mutual, whose bank wiped out its shareholders, might provide better source material for a novelist.
Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net