The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen (New York: Random House, 2010. 397 pp)

Born in Rhode Island, Thomas Mullen graduated from Oberlin College. His first novel, The Last Town on Earth, received  the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for excellence in historical fiction, Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today, and the Chicago Tribune best book of the year. Mullen currently resides in Atlanta with his wife and two sons.

“Large than life, she’d heard someone say. What can be larger than life? Death, or is that smaller? People do tend to become larger in death, their finer qualities extending outward like an endlessly serialized tale, their flaws and foibles forgotten, their stories continually retold. Larger than death. She thought about that and smiled, here, late at night, in a graveyard” (395).

Mullen’s pen – or for those who appreciate realism, his keyboard – speaks to a profound truth. Those people we remember fondly or infamously will inevitably become caricatures of who they really were. For me, Randy Johnson’s fastball gains speed and Ken Griffey, Jr. roams a larger territory in centerfield as the memory fades. Someday, the exploits of these players will become as legendary as the mythical feats of Babe Ruth himself. Similarly, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers points readers to the intersection between fact and fiction.

Placed in the murky depths of the Depression Era, the fictional account of Jason and Whit Fireson (known as the Firefly Brothers) fits neatly between the bloody shenanigans of Al Capone and John Dillinger. As reputations grew, the exploits of these mobsters became fabled. In the case of the Firefly Brothers, it seems that death holds no power over them. Fittingly, the book starts with Mullen writing:

“It all began when they died” (p. xiii).

Whether they are running from death or running to death depending on your interpretation, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers reads as a mystery novel because, the brothers’ actions in the book are shrouded in the mystery of life and death.

Despite the supernatural elements of multiple resurrections, the perspective in the book is down-to-earth. Upholding the tension between fiction and fact, the historical reality of the relationship between the poor masses and the banking elite frame our protagonists as either victims of trying times who rob banks to make ends meet, or as social heroes rebelling against institutional evils.

On a personal level, the Depression left the family of the Firefly Brothers fatherless and in a complete mess. The government indicted their father – having lost his business to his creditors – on charges of murder. While the novel carries its fair share of Tommy Guns and speakeasies, the weight of broken relationships and a struggling family generates the backbone of this book.

Ultimately, Mullen fashions a page-turner out of Depression Era mobsters. Whether the narrative is intended to be fact, fiction, or something in between, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers depicts a broken family trying their best with the circumstances provided to them. This book is a nominee for my book of the year and I recommend it to everyone.

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