Pulitzer Prize winner Moehringer does not tell you a couple of things in his brief author’s note about the facts behind this novelized life of the Depression-era bank robber Willie Sutton. He told us these things during a speech I attended at BookExpo America, and I thought these stories were worth including here. When asked why he robbed banks, Sutton, who wrote two contradictory autobiographies, was famous for answering, “Because that is where the money is.” Moehringer told us he began the book as his angry response to the present recession’s immoral causes.
The second thing Moehringer told us was about the gangland barbershop shoot-out that killed the man who killed the man who sent Sutton, a master of disguise, to prison in 1952. Another patron of that Manhattan barbershop fled, still in his sheet and shaving cream, into a nearby office where the startled young secretary was Moehringer’s own mother. She never told him this until he began to write the book.
I liked both of these anecdotes to enlighten how novels set in the past can become very personal and relevant to today in the hands of a master. And Moehringer’s Pulitzer — in a completely different genre — must be well-deserved. This novel is moving, artistically layering places and emotions in three times: Sutton’s youth, his tell-all (that hides more than it reveals) to a reporter at Christmastime upon his 1969 prison release, and the author’s present. The enigmas of this American Robin Hood are not all solved, and some solved in a most confusing fashion, but it’s a greater book for all of that.