“The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers”
By Thomas Mullen. Random House. 416 pages.
Thomas Mullen will sign and discuss “The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers” at 7:15 p.m. Feb. 3 at the Georgia Center for the Book, 215 Sycamore St., Decatur. 404-370-8450 Ext. 2225.
By Sarah Sacha Dollacker
When Jason Fireson wakes up under a white sheet, he’s completely disoriented. His back is cold from resting on a flat metal surface, and it’s deathly quiet in the room. As he revives, he notices his brother, Whit, lying as if dead on a similar table. Looking around, he realizes they are in a morgue. Jason feels his body. There are bullet holes in his stomach and blood on his skin, but he’s miraculously alive. He shakes his brother, and as Whit awakes, Jason notices the bullet holes in his brother’s flesh. They shouldn’t be alive — Jason suspects they may in fact be dead — but they feel human, and with a sudden rush, they both realize they have to get out of wherever they are — fast.
This opening scene sets the stage for the riveting cat-and-mouse game that unwinds over the next 400 knuckle-whitening pages. Set during the Great Depression, Thomas Mullen’s “The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers” follows Jason and Whit Fireson, aka the Firefly Brothers, two heroic bank robbers, as they struggle to find out what happened to them during a shootout in Points North, Ind. Unfortunately, neither brother remembers anything about the episode, and as they begin to piece bits of information together, they realize that they left $700,000 and their two girls behind. It is also clear that the shootout may not have been an accident: The police in Points North must have known they were coming. With these bits of knowledge and loads of suspicions, they set off across the Midwestern night to solve the mystery of their escape from death. Unfortunately, though, this won’t be their first brush with disaster, and as the scenarios of near-death experiences are replayed, they begin to believe that the myths about them are true: Perhaps they can’t die.
As both brothers wrestle with the unbelievable circumstances that continue to befall them, they are also haunted by the specter of their father, a man plagued to death by his own demons. The economic devastation of the Great Depression wrought a series of unexpected reactions, but no one would have guessed that Pop Fireson would have committed murder — especially not his two sons. Jason turned to crime long before his dad went to jail, but Whit started robbing banks with his brother as a way to process his anger and escape the sadness of home. Yet, a life of crime has not salved the hurt: Boiling under the surface of their partnership is a deep tension, as Whit harbors suspicions about Jason’s role in their father’s presumed crime.
Though the narrative follows both brothers, the protagonist is Jason Fireson, the most complex and likable character of the cast. Whereas Whit’s motivations are clear and his character easily understood, Jason is complicated and not what he seems. A handsome, well-dressed and charming man, it is hard to process that he regularly kills people and steals money from banks. It is impossible to view him as a heartless killer, but his actions suggest that this is exactly what he is. He robs banks because he’s good at it. He never wanted to live a straight life because bootlegging and the thrill of theft were more exciting. Yet, his tender care for his mother and the love he has for his girlfriend contradict the cold-blooded characteristics that his life of crime declares. As Jason struggles with his past and his desire for a better future, we are forced to analyze what the differences are between a criminal and a good man, which, we soon realize, may not be as simple as they seem.
What could have been merely a riotous adventure story is transformed into a complex brain-teaser of a literary novel in Mullen’s capable hands. Nuanced characterization and provocative themes render this story a multilayered tale that contemplates what it means to have second chances and, if you’re lucky enough to get them, what to do with them. As the story races to a fascinating conclusion and the mystery of Points North is slowly revealed, the reader will wonder whether the brothers are the mythic creations of a needy public or if they are just lucky. With this uncertainty, the tale incorporates elements of magical realism that further complicate a clean interpretation of the plot, as the reader is haunted by the burning question: Did the Firefly Brothers die or not? Mullen’s absorbing tale of larger-than-life criminals, car chases and shootouts is not to be missed.