Somewhere between the artful cons of The Brothers Bloom, the vigilante daring of Bonnie and Clyde and the untouchable chic of Danny Ocean, you can find Thomas Mullen‘s Fireson Brothers. Siblings Jason and Whit Fireson, a team of Depression-era bank robbers, are the heroes of The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers (Random House, 2010), a twisting, compelling, confusing and riveting novel by the Atlanta-based author.
What, from the outset, separates the Firefly Brothers (“Firefly” a spin on Fireson: “A play on the Fireson’s name, or an initial mispronunciation embossed into permanence by the papers,” muses the story’s narrator. “Or perhaps a reference to how the brothers always seemed to vanish from the authorities’ gaze, only to reappear so far from their pursuers”) from other crime gang stories is the brothers’ apparent inability to die. And, as the book’s title suggests, this story contains not just one scrape with death but multiple encounters. Brothers opens with dapper Jason Fireson waking up, naked and bullet-ridden, on a medical examiner’s table.
Jason and Whit escape that particular predicament only to find that they can’t quite make sense of how they got there (a laundered money transfer gone wrong) or what their ability to come back from death means in regard to their dangerous lifestyle.
Mullen’s tale is white-knuckle exciting at turns, but the author also manages to tuck a peculier conscience into the fast-paced text. The Firesons came into their line of work not just through greed and lawlessness, but also in response to the Great Depression — which made legal work hard to come by — and the loss of their father — who died while in prison on a murder charge for allegedly shooting the banker who caused him financial ruin. The complex layering of the brothers’ own connection adds to the multi-faceted experience of this read.
Like the Fireson’s inability to stay dead, nothing in Brothers is straight forward. Relationships with family members left behind veer between worshipful and strained. Business associates are shady and unpredictable and, to make matters worse, Jason’s girlfriend Darcy — the daughter of a heartless but wealthy automobile mogul — turns up missing.
Darcy (part silent screen actress, part gun moll) is probably the novel’s second most compelling character, after Jason. Brash and daring, her lines are lovingly crafted and her presence — even in moments of violence and madness — adds bright color to Brothers.
While I won’t spoil the ending for the reader — and this addictive, seamless book comes highly recommended — I will say that Mullen plays it smart and leaves just enough of an opening for a possible sequel. Even if it’s not the Firesons who come back, there’s certainly potential for Darcy to return. Here’s hoping.
Thomas Mullen discusses The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers at Malaprop’s on Friday, March 12 at 7 p.m. Info: 254-6734.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter