There was a time when I noticed reader friends around me reading more and more non-fiction as they grew older. Sometimes exclusively so. It seemed to me there was a noticeable trend. I told myself that I would never turn into “that” reader. Besides, wasn’t I naturally inoculated against this by my love for historical fiction? In that genre, I could have my cake and eat it too. I could indulge my fiction jones and learn something of history at the same time. Pleasure without quilt? But why would I feel guilt at reading “non-historical” fiction? “Pure” fiction, if you will. True, historical fiction has the additional attraction of explaining the world around us by reference to our shared experiences, our mutual histories. But there’s a shared experience of existence unconnected to our mutual histories. We have the shared experience of our very existence – our personal journey’s and our place in the world. Both have value to us as individuals. But it may be, it always has for me, that the best literary fiction grounds us and bonds us as no other literature can.
I go off on this tangent because I note that roughly half of what I’ve read this year to date is non-fiction. This is without precedent in my years of reading. The book I am reading now and the next one I’ll be reading are from the non-fiction side of the shelf. I’m not sure if this really says anything. It may be purely coincidental.
Now to the novel at hand, recently finished and long on my tbr list, Thomas Mullen’s The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, a neat piece of historical fiction that in places rises to the level of “literery”. The era of history is from the American Depression, and feeds our typically American (I think) fixation on those larger than life figures, and near mythical heroes – or anti-heroes depending on your point of view. And it’s got a gothic-fantastical bent as well. Almost nothing about Mullen’s book fits into a neat category, to the author’s credit.
The Firefly Brothers (there are three) are an interesting crew. Jason is the handsome guy with the killer eyes, the sharp dresser, the charismatic leader. Without the deprivation of the depression, things would surely have been different, but he seems destined for gangsterhood. Brother Whit is radicalized in another way – he becomes an activist. This doesn’t pay the bills, however, and he ends up joining forces with Jason. Weston is the straight-laced brother, who attempts to keep on the straight and narrow to the bitter end. This single-mindedness ultimately has its consequences.
There’re lots of bang-up action: bank robberies, kidnappings, auto-thefts, and highly visual high speed chases. The fantastical element occurs when the brothers wake up after having been killed. This is handled with the appropriates skepticism by the authorities, and conversely with typical readiness to believe almost anything by an adoring public.
The resolution of the “many deaths” is part of a very, very satisfying conclusion. I don’t believe I’ve ever read any historical fiction from this era – though I’m likely overlooking a few. But it’s doubtful that I’ve read one thats combined so many unique elements.