The judges for this year’s Townsend Prize for Fiction couldn’t have made a better choice when they selected Thomas Mullen’s outrageously inventive novel “The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers” as the 2012 winner on April 26. It is the second book for Mullen — though he’s written another one since then — and is one of those novels that seems to me to firmly establish the young author among the finest of his generation.
Adding to the pleasure of that award is the fact that the contenders for it were so good. Tom Mullen didn’t win out over a dead field; his rivals (a term used only in award terminology) included some terrific authors and books, whose presence among the finalists affirms that the state of fiction writing in this state is very good indeed. Congratulations go to all, but special recognition, of course, must be directed to the winner.
Tom Mullen is not from around these parts, but he’s been living in Decatur for the last five years, and has established himself as a most welcome addition to a thriving community that increasingly values its literary individuals. Decatur, after all, is not merely the home of a number of good writers but the home of the Georgia Center for the Book, which over the last decade has reset the heart of this region’s literary life squarely in the middle of town. Not only does it run one of the most ambitious and successful literary programs in the country but without it there would be no Decatur Book Festival today.
But back to Tom Mullen for a moment. “Firefly Brothers” is a quirky book, as you might assume from its title. The brothers are bank robbers in the 1930s who wake up only to find themselves in a morgue, presumed dead. Following some of America’s great myths, the brothers reinvent themselves in larger, more charismatic roles and flourish throughout a novel that sears with wonderful storytelling and sizzles with memorable characterizations. It’s just a dandy novel, one that’s easy to recommend, although now that it’s won the Townsend Prize — given every other year for the best work of fiction by a Georgia author — it would seem self-recommending.
Tom’s first novel, “The Last Town on Earth,” and his most recent, “The Revisionist,” are as splendid in their own ways, each different, and each pointing to a writer of diverse skills and interests. I should confess that Tom is a friend, and while I had no final voice in his selection, I couldn’t be happier for him.