A story of an Irish kid from a tough Brooklyn neighborhood who grows up to become a legendary, and very well read, bank robber because "the banks are the real crooks". What's not to like? Well, if, like I was, you are looking for an informative biography that digs into what makes a character like Willie Sutton tick, there's quite a bit not to like. Actually, better said, there's not much to like.
I was first drawn to the story because Sutton was once confined, until he escaped, to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, not far from where I once briefly lived. The prison was such a gothic nightmare, Quaker founders notwithstanding, that it's actually been saved from the bulldozers and is open for tours, not to mention dressed up as a haunted house for halloween. But details about the life in this hellhole are lacking, just as the details are lacking about most everything else that a deep biography should include. Instead, Moehringer sets up a conceit to frame the story wherein Sutton is driven through the streets of New York upon his final release from prison and is manipulated into "telling his tale" to a photographer and reporter for the New York Times, and who both spend most of their time whining about their assignment. This creates a double story, one in the past and one in the present, which leaves no room for either one to be interesting. And, in fact, there is no way to be sure what is actually true.
Willie Sutton was a fascinating American anti-hero. He was so well read that he would be a legend on "Goodreads". He was versed in Socrates, Shakespeare, Proust, and Pound, and spent hours in his numerous prison cells committing verse to memory. He escaped from many of these cells, only to continue robbing banks, because, as legend has it, though Willie denies ever saying it, "that's where the money is". Unfortunately, the author skims over the real Willie and his real psychological profile to fit the story to his framework and leaves the reader wondering who this guy really was.