Book Review: “The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers” by Thomas Mullen

January 27, 2010

Don’t worry: You won’t be bored. Thomas Mullen’s sophomore effort combines gee whiz action scenes with the historical pathos of 1930s Americana and deceptively straightforward characters in a novel that ends up feeling bigger than the sum of its parts.

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers is a study in cultural mythology. It’s a look at the meaning of truth and the melding of reality with legend. It’s a myth packed within a myth—the novel’s specific arc, the story of the much-apotheosized bank-robbing brothers Fireson, is wrapped within some of our most romanticized 20th-century national memories: 1930s Depression-glam, replete with Tommy gun-toting gorillas, Packards, and speakeasies.

The story opens in 1934, the country at the pinnacle of its economic grief. The criminal brothers, Jason and Whit Fireson, have just died. They have woken up in a rural Indiana morgue, riddled with gunshots, with no memory of how they perished. Never a dull moment: the action starts here and never stops.

We find that the brothers’ crime spree carries with it the implications of weightier things than their immediate motives of family grief and financial straits. Their crimes, which may or may not include ripping up failing mortgages and sparing regular Joes while targeting the fat cats, are also viewed by a desperate Midwest populace as acts of heroism, judgment, divine inspiration. So it’s not surprising that, when their bodies go missing, there is a significant minority of Americans who think them invincible. And maybe they are.

The brothers, who may or may not be alive, now have to contend with their missing sweethearts: Whit’s impoverished wife, Victoria; Jason’s brash automotive heiress, Darcy. Here more adventure and derring-do occur.

It takes some pages and experience with his cadence to grow accustomed to Mullen’s style. Though Mullen does drop some rather plunky dialog at times—it’s not his strongest suit—what sometimes sound hackneyed in the rest of his writing is somewhat illusory. You see, the corniness is intentional; the narrator himself (and I suggest you consider while you are reading: who is this narrator?) is part of the warp and weft of the storytelling. Mullen writes neither sparsely nor densely, paving an interesting middle ground that often just stays out of the way of the gunshots and car chases. But then he’ll drop a phrase so well-turned that one struggles to believe it isn’t already a cliché or a proverb. I like things like these:

“She didn’t know what to do with that comment, so she dropped it onto the floor and they both looked at it for a moment.”
—Page 100

The passage carries the bluntness and bravado of a hardboiled adventure without sentimentality, but also feels expressive. And despite its plain Jane ability to spin a yarn, the novel is quietly doing something more meaningful in the background the entire time. By the end—and I didn’t know what that end would be until literally the last paragraph—its apparent that the characters have taken on a life of their own and maybe things aren’t as you thought. Maybe you chose the wrong myth to believe.

LibraryThing Early Reviewer Program

My many thanks again to LibraryThing for their Early Reviewer program, as well as Random House. The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers was released on January 26, 2010.

LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program

4.0 stars

One Comment

  1. El Gray says:

    Well, this sounds very good, indeed! I’ll keep an eye out for it.

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