The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers

Banks are failing, working men and women lose their jobs and paranoia about the future of the American economy is widespread. Sound a little like 2010? Think again. It’s the Great Depression and Thomas Mullen writes about the Fireson1 brothers and their experience trying to survive economic and near-social collapse.

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers

They were already worshiped during their bank-robbing spree between the spring of ’33 and July of ’34. They were already celebrities – heroes or villains depending on one’s position on the ever-shifting seesaw of the times – indistinguishable in fact from the many folktales chorusing around them. But they became so much more during a two-week spell in August of 1934 starting with the night they died. The night they died for the first time.

Mullen’s introduction leaves no doubt as to what this story is about. It is about  truth shrouded by myth. It is about hope and fear. It is about bank robbing.  Make no mistake – this book is about guns, broads, big scores, flatfoots, bootleggers and thieves. But it is also a book of sociology and of metaphysics.

One half of Mullen’s narrative is a straightforward account of a family coping with the Great Depression. Jason, the eldest of three Fireson boys, rebels early against his hardworking father and gets into the bootlegging game. Profitable, violent and risky, this gig lands him in jail for a couple of stints estranging him from family and introducing him to darker elements. After a curtailed final attempt at the straight life – one in which his erstwhile upstanding father falls prey to his darker nature – Jason uses his big house connections to become a bank robber, taking in middle brother Whit as an accomplice and leaving their youngest brother on the outside of the new family business.

Which brings us to the second half of Mullen’s narrative. It is a half narrative that runs parallel to the straight story. One that whispers of deep family bonds, brotherly affection, carnal love2, sacrifice and most notably resurrection. Yes, the title of the novel means what it says.

The brothers’ first resurrection happens in basement morgue of a police station. Mystified at first, the brothers quickly adapt to their circumstance, planning jobs with the lingering expectation that death by lead bullet will be but temporary. Mullen does an excellent job transmogrifying the metaphor of public immortality into actual invulnerability to Death’s grim scythe. Throughout the text we are reminded of Dillinger and others infamously gunned down who live on, much like Elvis would later in the century in newspaper and eyewitness sightings.

But the Firefly brothers live on in lore as their corporeal forms stick around to stay in on the joke. The inescapable puzzle is why? Why do they die grisly deaths under dire circumstances just to rise and do it all again? What unfinished business do they have on this mortal coil? What of redemption3? Most, though not all, is revealed in time and Mullen allows the piece to breathe. He gives his readers just enough rope to leave themselves dangling from the rafters of meaning and conclusion. The ending satisfies without solving. The actual rubble of the Fireson’s last known hideout is indistinguishable from the moral rubble of the brother’s crimes.

By the end of the novel prohibition has been repealed, America is on it’s way out of economic collapse and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI is ascendant.  But lives remain unaccounted for, the undercurrent of civil unrest still flows and whispers continue that the Fireson’s may yet live in more than just the public imagination. Spend some time with this fine novel of America during the Great Depression and you will be richly rewarded with action, adventure, intrigue, metaphysics, mysticism4 and social commentary. All in a day’s work.

1 Dubbed, ultimately, by a media hungry for spectacle “The Firefly Brothers.”
2 The aforementioned broads.
3 Don’t be disappointed – you’ll not find much of that.
4 Though who are we to say that these two are not one and the same?

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