Book Review - Thomas Mullen breathes life into the Firefly Brothers

Decatur author is reborn with new novel

"It all began when they died."

So begins The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, Decatur resident Thomas Mullen's new book about a pair of Depression-era bank robbers who have a little problem with dying. It's not that Jason and Whit Fireson are afraid of dying – they're fearless Robin Hoods with silk suits and tommy guns. The problem is they can't die. Or rather, they can die, but afterward they wake up full of bullet holes and find themselves again in the world of the living. Confused? Jason and Whit are, too.

In the opening scene, the Fireson brothers come to naked in a morgue, while the police celebrate on the other end of the station. They make a quick escape in a stolen car, trying to remember what happened. Memory's fuzzy when you die, apparently. Twenty pages in, Jason and Whit are still as confused as we are: "They both sat in the car, hoping that this soon would make sense."

Like us, they don't have much choice but to accept it and get on with their lives. News sweeps the nation that public enemy No. 1 is finally gone, just like John Dillinger a few weeks prior. This takes the heat off the brothers, who use the time to visit their mother. Mom's been struggling for years, living mostly off the stacks of cash they've brought her from bank vaults. They may be bank robbers, but they're momma's boys at heart.

Criminals like the Firefly Brothers fit right into the summer of 1934. The true villains are the banks, who've been evicting families and foreclosing on houses all over the country. The public isn't afraid of the Firefly Brothers as much as it's in love with them. When it's finally discovered the brothers aren't dead, their mythic proportions amplify: "They were seen robbing banks, holding up gas stations, saving the elderly from burning buildings. They were impregnating ex-lovers, coaxing kittens from flimsy branches, delivering impromptu sermons at Congregationalist services. They'd sent death threats to Republican governors and donated food to Hoovervilles. They were beating communist insurgents, wooing widows, helping crippled war veterans carry their groceries."

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers is a well-timed novel. Surely a few of us wouldn't mind seeing some fat cats on Wall Street get the Firefly treatment today, especially if dear-old-mom got a cut of the cash. Mullen's best moments come when he's evoking the hand-painted signs and Hoovervilles of the '30s. A flashback shows Whit nearly beat to death by union-busting cops and being tended to in a ramshackle tent. Some of these scenes owe a debt to Hard Times, an oral history of the era put together by Studs Terkel, which Mullen gratefully mentions in his acknowledgements.

Mullen owes a couple of debts to rules of the bank-robbing genre, too. The plot's mostly driven by the idea of "one last job" and his heroes fit a typical bill: Jason's the good-looking one, Whit's the loudmouth. The cops are the usual boneheads, unable to do anything without tripping over their own feet. There's even some cornball romance, complete with Bogart-ready lines such as, "Why do you have that gleam in your eye, Miss Windham?"

The mystery of the Firefly Brothers' resurrection is the real draw. Mullen teases that intrigue throughout the story, through multiple deaths and resurrections. It's a tough angle, but Mullen makes it believable enough, grounding his story in clear realism to balance the magical events. In this way, he breathes some life into The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers.

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen. Random House. $26. 416 pp.

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