“The best book of 2012.”
That’s quite the statement, isn’t it?
2012 was the year of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, J.K. Rowling’s first adult novel, the Fifty Shades saga, Hilary Mantel’s second Man Booker win, a new Stephen King…
So, for something to be “the BEST book of 2012” it would have some obstacles of other greatness to overcome. Right?
That’s why, when perusing the aisles of a perfectly Christmassy Chapters before the holiday season, I was drawn to pick up Sutton by J.R Moehringer. Set slightly higher than the rest of the books on Indigo’s “Year’s best” table, it had its own placate, the familiar gold “Heather’s Pick” sticker and an impressive proclamation: The BEST book of 2012.
I had to read it.
This book already had something going for it. It was named “Sutton”, the same name of my (and other book club member, Meghan) favourite teacher in high school. Seriously, we loved this guy. We even wrote “WWSD” (What Would Sutton Do?) in the sand on our Grade 12 grad trip to Cancun.
Based on that alone, this book was going to be great. I could tell.
Other reasons why this book was sure to please:
- It was set in New York City (personal obsession)
- Largely in The Great Depression era (personal fascination)
- It was about bad-ass bank robbers
- … based on a true story …
Yes, this book takes you into the wild life of Willie Sutton – real life and prolific American bank robber. Who, during his criminal career that spanned over four decades, managed to steal an estimated $2 million from over 100 banks and break out of practically every prison that tried to hold him.
Willie Sutton was a BAWSE. And I was excited to read about him.
After reading the author’s note I was hooked. I just knew that I would sail through this Christmas read easily.
J.R. Moehringer opens the novel with:
“After spending half his life in prison, off and on, Willie Sutton was set free for good on Christmas Eve, 1969. His sudden emergence from Attica Correctional Facility sparked a media frenzy. Newspapers, magazines, television networks, talk shows – everyone wanted an interview with the most elusive and prolific bank robber in American history.
Sutton granted only one. He spent the entire next day with one newspaper reporter and one photographer, driving around New York City, visiting the scenes of his most famous hiests and other points of interest in his remarkable life.
The resulting article, however, was strangely cursory, with several errors – or lies – and few real revelations.
Sadly, Sutton and the reporter and the photographer are all gone, so what happened among them that Christmas, and what happened to Sutton during the preceding sixty-eight years, is anyone’s guess.
This book is my guess.
But it’s also my wish.”
Okay, so I’m on board. A fictional story based on a real-life dude. I’m with you, J.R.
AND Moehringer is a former national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. So a real-life journalist writing about a real-life criminal and his encounter with other real-life journalists…
THIS… is where the book lost me.
By day, I am a journalist. I write stories, I take pictures, I cover events and I can only IMAGINE how excited / nervous / awe-inspired I’d be if MY day’s assignment was to be the ONLY journalist who would get one on one time with the man all of America wanted to interview. To put it plainly, I would be losing my s!#*.
So when we’re introduced to the young reporter/photographer duo, I think “I’m totally going to sympathize with these characters.”
But I didn’t.
In my opinion, they were unbelievable.
Acting in a way no journalist (any I know, anyway) would ever act.
The reporter – young, ambitious, probably about to write an article that could propel his career in the right direction – is slightly unenthused and seems annoyed with the assignment and the bossy way Sutton is conducting himself. The photographer is an idiot, straight up. He guffaws and tries to be buds with Sutton, unprofessional to the point he even sneaks in smoking a joint, on the job, when the other two are preoccupied.
IS HE 14 YEARS OLD?
J.R., homeboy, how did you get these roles so wrong?
I’m not going to pretend I know more than the author does about Willie Sutton, or life in the late 1960s. Or even that I have more credibility as a journalist. But in my opinion, the relationship between the three present-day characters ruins the book. It was the flashbacks, to Sutton’s old life of crime told through his own eyes, that I enjoyed most. A love story that weaves its way through the narrative, an expertly woven tale of hardships that has you rooting for the bad guy and the revelations of bravery, integrity and nerve of a man who is now a legend.
But, *spoiler alert*, in the end you realize the story Sutton weaved may not even be true. That his version of his own life may be the crazy ramblings of an old man with a failing memory. One particular scene where 1969 Willie Sutton meets with the granddaughter of someone he knew in the past seems so bizarre and out of place, it left me feeling duped. Like the whole book was just one lie after another.
While I thought I was uncovering the real Willie Sutton, I realized I knew less about him than when I started.
I’m not here to write off J.R. Moehringer as an author, or even to say that reading Sutton would be a waste of time, because, in parts, I enjoyed it.
But to call it “The BEST Book of 2012”, Indigo? … Maybe you should make the Unputdownable Book Club your jury panel for 2013 …
Let’s just leave it at that.