Behind the Book: Modern-day echoes of a world turned upside down
by Thomas Mullen
First allow me to say that I had nothing to do with our current financial meltdown. A few years ago I found myself starting a novel about a family of bank robbers set during the Great Depression, a story that would become The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers. At the time, our stock market was briskly accelerating, the wind in its hair and its wrist casually dangling out the window. My house had almost doubled in value, along with pretty much everyone else’s, and people at parties traded ideas for the next great investment (redo the kitchen? buy nanotech stocks? get a second house?).
While casting about for an idea for my second novel, I read a history of bank robbers during the Great Depression and was intrigued by colorful characters like John Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd. I next read a number of books about the Depression itself and marveled at the stories. Fistfights at the offices of employers who announced they needed to hire two men and found themselves fending off a riot of hundreds of applicants; long lines of laid-off white-collar workers waiting on city sidewalks for a free lunch, shamefully shielding their faces from view; families facing desperate decisions about how to simply stay alive; angry young men robbing banks and redistributing wealth the old-fashioned way.
This all seemed so otherworldly to me as I read about the ’30s from the comfortable vantage of 2007. And it had seemed so otherworldly to the people living it, too. People in the Great Depression, particularly the early years, felt utterly unmoored. Their world had been turned upside down. One year, shoeshine boys had been trading stock tips; the next year, stockbrokers were taking walks out their 20th-floor windows. Countless people were dispossessed, out of work and literally starving. How had this happened? We were a nation in complete and utter shock. All of the foundations of normalcy had been torn down—faith not only in capitalism but also in democracy; the belief that hard work would be rewarded, that the American Dream could be achieved. Our most basic assumptions had been revealed to be no more than empty myths.
One year, shoeshine boys had been trading stock tips; the next year, stockbrokers were taking walks out their 20th-floor windows.
I had always wanted to write a novel centered on a typical American middle-class family unexpectedly derailed by economic disaster, but had struggled with figuring out how to do so without being too depressing—and had wondered how I might make the story interesting to readers who were themselves living in the strongest economy ever known to man. The larger-than-life bank robbers of the Depression, I realized, presented me with a perfect opportunity. My fictional family could be a shop-owning clan in a small Midwestern city, ruined by the father’s horribly timed real estate speculation. In response, two of the three sons become bank robbers—and, soon enough, folk heroes to the legions of angry souls who blame the banks and the government for the hard times—and a third son can stay home to try supporting the family legitimately. The domestic tension, the sibling rivalries, the cool bank-robbing scenes, the fedoras and Tommy guns and fast cars, the mythology of the ’30s bank robbers, the sense that all of America’s founding principles had suddenly and irrevocably been called into question, a nation that seemed on the verge of revolution—all these were rich in narrative possibility for the novelist, even in 2007. I had no idea that any of this might also become frighteningly relevant to my own times—after all, as I wrote the rough draft, the Dow was above 13,000.
A very unfunny thing happened during the final revisions of The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers—the world economy collapsed. I had, alas, not seen this coming (one glance at my retirement account will prove my point). But as I read and reread my book in the final months of copyediting and proofreading, it was eerie that so many things I had once considered borderline fantastical were becoming commonplace in 2009: entire neighborhoods foreclosed and vacant; a modern-day Hooverville popping up beneath a highway overpass in my childhood home of Providence, Rhode Island; populist rage at government and banks, along with accusations and counteraccusations about the merits of socialism and the failures of capitalism; the sense that we had, for the last few years or decades, been deluded fools, recklessly living according to a set of fictional principles that had finally crumbled in the face of reality.
When writing The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, I had not been trying to tell the future or draw parallels between a distant time and our own—and I think the book works even for readers unconcerned with such analogies. But it also proves that no matter how hard a writer might try to tell own his story and control his characters, there are always more powerful forces at work. The best you can do is tell your tale and let it loose upon a world that we’re all trying to make sense of, even as it changes around us, day after day.
Thomas Mullen made his literary debut in 2006 with the award-winning novel The Last Town on Earth. His second novel, The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers, has just been published by Random House. Mullen lives in Atlanta with his wife and two sons.