Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Best Cover Award

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, by Thomas Mullen, has a lot more going for it than its title and cover, but they are pretty great, aren't they?

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers: A Novel 
I wish I’d had time to read this book slowly; I think I would have enjoyed it more if I was someone who liked to linger.  In spite of the bank robbers and chase scenes and resurrections (yes, plural!) it’s really a book about atmosphere, about the world of the Great Depression and the kind of people it created.

Jason and Whit Fireson are bank robbing brothers, the head of an infamous gang who’ve swept across middle America stealing cash and leaving behind legends.  This part of the story probably isn’t unfamiliar to anyone—it’s the Depression and no one loves the bankers.  The Firesons—known more romantically as the Firefly Brothers—are seen alternately as wreaking havoc and giving back a little of the suffering that the fat cats have caused.

But this is all backstory.  Actually, at least half the book is backstory.  In the present, the brothers have been shot dead and are lying on slabs in the morgue.  They wake up cold, naked, and full of holes, listening to the police upstairs celebrating their capture.  Confused, with no memory of the last week and no hint to what’s going on, they steal some clothes and are on the run.

From here, we have two timelines—the present, where they’re on the run, looking for their girlfriends, visiting their mother and straight-arrow brother, trying to figure out what might have happened and how they can get away.  In the meantime, Jason’s troubled girlfriend has been kidnapped for the ransom her wealthy father might provide.  We follow Darcy, we follow Jason and Whit as they try to find each other and figure out what to do with this new life.

But fully half of the story is the other timeline, the past.  Through flashback we get the year leading up to their capture, the year of the Firefly Brothers’ greatest notoriety, and through memories and descriptions, we get more information, how the three brothers were shaped by their father, his belief in the American dream and his terrible downfall, how each of them came to be who and where he is, and how far from each other they really are.

This is really the story of the Great Depression, and every character illustrates a different facet of it—Jason, unrepentantly self-centered, Darcy, whose life of miserable wealth leaves her unsympathetic to those starving around her, Whit, who believes bank robbing can be a form of Socialism, and Weston, the brother who lives like everyone else in the Depression, anyone who doesn’t have the option of robbing banks to eat well.

The story lingers on all these characters, the scenes that reveal them and show their connections and make them who they are.  There are plenty of gunfights, more resurrections than you’d expect, and plenty of drama, but that’s not why you should read this book.  In fact, if you’re reading the book for these reasons, you’re probably not going to enjoy it as much.  Because the Americana is by far the more deeply rooted, the more thoroughly dramatized, the more meaningfully portrayed part of the story.

I have a few complaints: the ‘big reveals’ at the end are very easy to see coming.  Some of the jumping around in time is off-putting, especially when it comes to Weston.  But I think this was the most enjoyable, accessible, compelling book of the Depression that I’ve ever read.  If that’s what you’re in the market for, well, there you go.

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