Theodore Wheeler. Edition Solitude, $3.50 chapbook (50p) ISBN: 978-3937158877
In Theodore Wheeler’s debut chapbook, On the River Down Where They Found Willy Brown, readers are whisked along with the mob that dictates the racial tensions of Omaha, Nebraska in the early 1900s and the repercussions that those tensions have on all communities involved.
Willy Brown is the story of both the titular character, a black man wanted for allegedly committing a rape, as well as Karel Miihlstein, a 15-year-old German immigrant who loves baseball. Eventually their paths intersect, though not directly, and Miihlstein watches helplessly as “justice” is enacted upon Willy Brown by the mob.
Wheeler begins by painting an almost-mythic portrait of Willy Brown, humanizing yet idolizing the man who will eventually be arrested for an alleged rape. “Some of us thought a lot about who that schwarzer Mann was. That Willy Brown who did those bad things to a girl. Willy Brown wouldn’t have looked that old, but he would have felt old that year.” You are then introduced to the baseball-loving Miihlstein, and watch as he takes in the annual Fourth of July Interrace baseball game before. “Anybody who held steady in an integrated profession,” Wheeler writes, “lived and died with the Interrace game.”
Finally, the two stories begin to intertwine, as someone suggests Brown was the culprit and the mob captures him. Miihlstein and his crew follow along, watching as the police are helpless against the power of the mob.
The distance created by the narrator is the most interesting part of this chapbook. At once, you are both part of the mob and hovering above them, taking it all in, watching the chaos that ensues, cringing at their choices and the injustice that takes place. You know that the narrator is one of the German immigrants—the prose is speckled with Deutsch—but you never know who it is. At best, you can guess that it’s one of Miihlstein’s lackeys, though a lackey with prescience unknown to his comrades. There is little emotional involvement on the part of the narrator. Very much as Lewis Nordan does in Wolfwhistle, Wheeler shows the thoughts of the mob in front of you and lets you decide what to make of it.
Willy Brown is over almost as soon as it starts, and that’s a shame. The prose carries you along until the inevitably sad end. Like with any good work of literature, you are left wanting more.
On the River Down Where They Found Willy Brown manages to take readers back in time while staying incredibly topical for this day and age. The issues at play in the story are the same ones igniting protest across the country today. Willy Brown is as much a testament to Wheeler’s prose control as it is a comment on just how far we haven’t come as a nation in the century since the story took place. (February 2015)
Purchase On the River Down Where They Found Willy Brown HERE.
Reviewer bio: Sam Slaughter is the author of the chapbook When You Cross That Line, the forthcoming short story collection God in Neon, and the forthcoming novel Dogs. He is the Atticus Book Review Editor and can be found online at www.samslaughterthewriter.com and on Twitter @slaughterwrites.