"No, we seem to be pretty good at dying. But something's not letting us stay dead."
Set in the Depression-era Midwest, Thomas Mullen's second novel, "The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers," tells a rip-roaring yarn that manages to be both phantasmagorical and historically accurate. In its labyrinthine, luminous narrative, reminiscent of Michael Chabon's best fiction, readers will find powerful parallels to the present-day.
The Firefly Brothers, bank robbers Jason and Whit Fireson, wake in a police station morgue after having been shot dead. They do not remember what happened. Confused but undeterred, they escape and embark on a crime spree intended to bring in enough cash to disappear for good. Complicating their plans, Jason's girlfriend Darcy Windham has been kidnapped by rogues unknown. Will the Firefly Brothers find her in time? Will their law-abiding brother Weston turn them in for the reward money? More important, what happens if the police shoot them dead again?
The elements a jaded reader might expect are all present: the plucky main squeeze, stumblebum cops, accomplices with names like Brickbat and Chance McGill, greedy bankers, an intrepid federal agent and the sometimes glib but darkly glamorous outlaws themselves. But Mullen avoids cliché by digging deep into the past lives of his characters, exploring not only the bond between brothers but also their relationship with their uncompromising yet deeply flawed father, Patrick Fireson -- a man who conjures "invisible advantages from the darkness, had taken emptiness and poverty and turned them into the raw materials of a life's adventure. . . . "
The novel also features brilliant set pieces, including a shootout in an old house and a harrowing car chase, while even incidental descriptions are appropriate to the time period. "The old man's face was unreadable," Mullen writes, "like a pile of discarded typesetting keys in a junkyard." The sound of bullets hitting a metal harness is "almost musical, like coins plinking a pond's surface as they're transformed into wishes."
Mullen's careful observations of the brothers, post-resurrection, help ground the novel as well. After their second miraculous return following a shootout, Whit finds that he's covered in purple welts where the "cop had riddled him good." His fingers are "tacky with blood." After awhile, with Jason not yet conscious, Whit "needed to escape his brother's presence for a moment, needed to be spared the horrible and unknowable responsibility of being a living person in the company of the dead."
The novel also keeps circling back to creation of the myths surrounding the Firefly Brothers. A populace desperate for hope has turned them into folk heroes while, in stark and damning contrast, ordinary people are disappearing: "They vanished from the factories and warehouses and workshops . . . the doors padlocked, the buildings like tombs." The desolation of such passages comes not so much from an appreciation of hardships suffered in the past as from the overlay in readers' minds of similar scenes from the present day.
The longer the Firefly Brothers remain on the lam -- the more times they die only to return -- the greater the power of their mythology: "That was the thing about death: it could leave the old mysteries unsolved. The stories could go on telling themselves with the passage of time."
But which stories, and which versions? Some stories contain a hint of the truth, while in others the brothers are "impregnating ex-lovers, coaxing kittens from flimsy branches, delivering impromptu sermons at Congregationalist services." Federal agent Cary Delaney sees the Firefly Brothers as "men who couldn't handle the pressures everyone else is facing, so they decided to just take from decent people, even if it means killing along the way." Darcy, as Jason's lover, tries to turn the bank robber into a superhero, telling one of her kidnappers, "[Jason] walks through walls. He can change faces, slip through stakeouts. . . . Bullets pass through him."
Sometimes, though, the participants don't want to be part of the myth. In a flashback conversation, Jason tells Darcy about a time he saved Whit's life, saying with disgust, "I let them put a bunch of other sick folks in my car, too, so the story gets twisted that I'm this saint ferrying the poor to the hospital, like I run my own ambulance service for the needy." Part of Jason's disgust stems from the way the stories have outgrown his ability to control them or their message.
By the novel's end, reality and myth cannot be disentangled, and finding one single version of the truth seems unimportant. Mullen provides enough traditional resolution -- Darcy's fate, the facts behind Patrick Fireson's involvement in a murder -- that any ambiguity to the secret behind the brothers' resurrection seems less a tease than essential to the novel. The brothers live within an ongoing, unsolvable story: "Whit asked Jason if he thought this would keep happening, or if maybe this was the last time. How much longer would they haunt each other like this. Or would they both vanish, to each other and the world."
Mullen's first novel, "The Last Town on Earth" (2006), garnered significant praise. It's easy to see why. In "The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers," he has created a stunning work of fiction that is intense, deeply satisfying and always uniquely American.
VanderMeer is the author of many books, including "City of Saints and Madmen" and, most recently, "Finch."
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