There’s a quality to J.R. Moehringer’s writing that makes you feel you aren’t stepping into a book so much as a dimly lit but welcoming bar. This makes sense to anyone who’s read his moving 2005 memoir, The Tender Bar, about coming of age in a corner saloon. With a voice at once sentimental and muscular, Moehringer is like the kid brother of John Irving or Roddy Doyle. He brings a raconteur’s grace and rhythm to his first novel, Sutton, a stirring portrait of Willie ”The Actor” Sutton, the notorious American bank robber who never fired his gun.
The story opens on Christmas Eve, 1969, with Sutton’s release from Attica at age 68. The once dapper man agrees to spend his first day of freedom with a newspaper reporter eager to untangle his life story: from his childhood home in Brooklyn’s Irish Town, where he endured blistering beat-downs from his older brothers, to Coney Island, where he forever gave his heart away to a girl named Bess, to the various banks he broke into and the maximum-security prisons from which he busted loose. Moehringer blends meticulous research with his own wishful thinking to reach into Sutton’s reckless heart and brilliant mind. He’s a helluva character to reimagine, but at its core the novel is a love letter to New York. ”No matter how many times you see it, you never quite get over how much it doesn’t f—in need you. But that — that indifference, I guess you’d call it — that’s half of what makes the town so goddamn beautiful.”
Moehringer — a Pulitzer-winning former reporter who collaborated with Andre Agassi on the tennis star’s acclaimed 2009 memoir, Open — doesn’t seem to know how to wrap up his otherwise great yarn. The unsatisfying revelation about Sutton’s great love affair leaves a muddy taste. But isn’t closing time always a bit of a letdown when you don’t want an entertaining night to end? A-