Willy Slater’s Lane Reviews

New York Times Book Review

February 23, 1997
By Barbara Fisher

Harlan Kern and his brother, Erban, have lived all their lives, almost 60 years, isolated at the end of a narrow country road called Willy Slater’s Lane. Even when their house falls in, they remain, moving into an abandoned yellow school bus. They stay on their land not because they are willful, but because they are strangely willless. Then, after growling and grumbling through his solitary life, Harlan suddenly and surprisingly gives it up. And Erban, released from his older brother’s angry grip, expands and explores. He makes a friend, lonely and self-doubting Doc Krantz, and adopts a family, homeless and hapless Flukey West and her damaged daughter, Virginia. He also learns to share his appreciation of nature. While these achievements seem small, Mitch Wieland’s novel makes them feel large. ”Willy Slater’s Lane,” with its simple plot and simple language, is immensely moving, reminding us that the story that seems the tritest can still turn out to be the truest.

Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review

October 22, 1996

Wieland’s lovely first novel is likely to entrance readers with the sheer quixotic wonder of his telling of quenched lives. The quiet understatement of the skilled storyteller is evident from the first paragraph, even the first sentence: “”Harlan and Erban Kern were eating breakfast in the kitchen when their living room floor collapsed.”” Now in their late 50s, the Kern brothers live an eccentric, reclusive life in their house at the end of a rural lane in southeastern Ohio. They do not work. Neither has been seen in town for years, not since Harlan answered a personal ad in a local newspaper, thus acquiring Elizabeth, his wife. For three years, Elizabeth, who left a depressed mill town in Pennsylvania for what she hoped was a better life, has submitted to Harlan’s raging temperament, feistily defying him. Suddenly, a grocery-store epiphany reveals to her that in her fight to survive as an individual, she is becoming just like him. Meanwhile, gentle, acquiescent Erban leads his own introspective life, reading an old set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and remembering the parents the brothers lost while still teenagers “”to a bad seal on a Mason jar.”” Underlying Erban’s submissive acceptance of Harlan’s authority is an innate sense of decency, caring and unarticulated interest in and excitement about people and the natural world that surrounds him. But even quiet Erban will ultimately be surprised by the pulse of the powerful denouement that will alter the direction of these three lives. Very much alive on the periphery are the farmer folk still living near Willy Slater’s Lane. Through the brevity born of perfectly chosen words, and through the pervasive intimations of hope, Wieland transforms this story of lives on the edge of ordinary into a psalm.

Booklist Starred Review

February 15, 1997
By Joanne Wilkinson

This small gem of a book offers a transcendent portrait of two eccentric, middle-aged brothers who could have come straight from the pages of a Sherwood Anderson novel. When their living-room floor collapses, Harlan and Erban Kern merely move the remaining furniture into the kitchen and resume eating their breakfast. They still live in the house where they grew up, but their rundown farm is vastly reduced from its original sprawling acreage. They stash the money obtained from selling off the land in tin cans buried in their backyard. They have not been to town in more than 20 years; all their shopping is done by Harlan’s mail-order bride, Elizabeth. A crisis brought on by Elizabeth’s desertion and the collapse of the entire house forces them to move into a school bus parked on their property, where the bitter, angry Harlan goes into his final decline, while gentle, bookish Erban flowers, achieving a spiritual and emotional epiphany. First-novelist Wieland is a meticulous craftsman, using spare, quiet sentences to compose this spellbinding character study.

Kirkus Review

November 15, 1996

Charming, upbeat first novel set in Ohio. Every farm community seems to have a pair of reclusive brothers whom the world has passed by, and Wieland portrays such a pair unerringly. The dominant brother here is Harlan, a sour, miserly man who sold off the best land on the farm when his hard-working father died and who has lived on the money ever since. He parcels out tiny stipends to his weak younger brother, Erban, and his hapless wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth, grossly overweight, came to Harlan when he answered her desperate ad in the paper; all that he requires of her is that she cook. Erban does what few chores are required on the diminished farm but spends most of his time reading an old Britannica and making observations about nature. Meanwhile, as the industrious Amish pass in their buggies down Willy Slater’s Lane, the road that runs past the farm, the house (which Harlan refuses to repair) slowly begins to collapse, and Erban and Elizabeth have to increasingly rely on the charity of neighbors even for food. Events come to a head when Elizabeth grows ill and Harlan refuses to seek medical help. Erban, struggling with a late-blooming strength, defies his brother and brings in the local doctor, a fine, crotchety character. Recovered, a grateful Elizabeth throws herself into an affair with Erban, an encounter of comic rather than biblical proportions, but it drives a wedge between the brothers that results in Elizabeth’s departure and, indirectly, in Harlan’s death. In the aftermath, Erban and the doctor’s friendship flowers, and there is even the possibility of romance for Erban, with a high-school sweetheart of some 40 years before. A modest mixture of Sherwood Anderson and Erskine Caldwell, with some perfectly observed characters in a narrative that is winningly sweet without being sentimental.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

February 2, 1997
By Larry Swindell

Mitch Wieland’s Willy Slater’s Lane is grand entertainment and is the SMU Press entry most likely to secure an audience.

Eccentric is not sufficient to describe the outrageously venomous Harlan Kern (think Walter Matthau) or his unreasonably sympathetic brother Erban (think Jack Lemmon, although the brothers Kern are only in their 50s). The brothers never work, and have subsisted for years on their inheritance from parents who died of food poisoning because a Mason jar was not properly sealed. After their house on Willy Slater’s Lane collapses piece into a pit, they take residence in an abandoned school bus.

Dust jacket quotes liken Willy Slater’s Lane to Sherwood Anderson and Saul Bellow, but my referral is Charles Portis of True Grit and The Dog of the South; and the Kern brothers plus Elizabeth—Harlan’s abused mail order wife—are raffish extensions of Anne Tyler kooks.

Oyster Boy Review

January 1998
By Nelson Taylor

Take one part miserable redneck repertoire a la Larry Brown and one part of Raymond Carver’s quiet wisdom and craft, and what you’re left with is Mitch Wieland and his beautifully painful debut, Willy Slater’s Lane. This is a character driven novel that stands alone in comparison to contemporary literature. It’s fresh and original without being part of the generation-next-just-do-it fad, and it’s completely primal and accessible without being of the Docker-dad/soccer-mom brand of fiction.

Although Wieland is fresh from the MFA program at the University of Alabama (this book being his thesis), Willy Slater’s Lane leaves the taste in one’s mouth of a true veteran. Eerily precise are his sentences, his syntax simple and clean. Yet even at a skimpy 161 pages, Wieland’s skillful storytelling helps him achieve what few can in a book double the length.

“Harlan and Erban were eating breakfast in the kitchen when their living room collapsed.” So begins this stoic, albeit sensitive, tromp through the stagnant, poverty-enriched terrain of the Ohio backlands. Said men are will-less and jobless aging brothers—reminiscent of a soured Laurel and Hardy at the end of their rope—living in a rotting clapboard house on the land bequeathed to them by their father, who noosed himself from the rafters of the barn before the onset of the story.

Harlan is the eldest, an overbearing pessimist who holds a distrust for the world and a stiff upper hand over Elizabeth, his obese mail-order bride, and the meek, innocent and bookish Erban (he owns an old set of encyclopedias he reads cover to cover). They have almost no money to speak of (Harlan bitches at Elizabeth for being a wastrel and making their morning coffee too strong). Neither brother has ever held a job, and Harlan intends to live out the rest of his life just so. And as long as Erban has Harlan, Elizabeth and his encyclopedias, he intends to live out his days on his father’s land learning about the world from his out-dated books.

But, as the land surrounding their home is being eaten up by a hungry coal company, the relationship between the three fizzles. Elizabeth becomes deathly ill, and because Harlan won’t take care of her because he believes she’s faking, Erban brings her back from near death, which leads to a mutual bonding between the two, and a no-no. In the barn Erban rolls in the proverbial hay with Elizabeth, only to be caught by Harlan. Their family, their land and their home all crumble to pieces. Then Elizabeth runs away. Harlan now not speaking to Erban, the two are forced to relocate into an old school bus because their home finally collapses totally. But as rigid as Harlan seems, there’s a soft side to him, full of regret for the way he treats people. But that regret cannot save his life as his truck careens off a bridge and into a murky river. It seems Erban will live out his last days alone, but with the help of a neighbor and his willing heart, Erban finds in life something he never expected.

With a mix of wry humor and a tight heart, Willy Slater’s Lane marks Mitch Wieland’s powerful, inaugural emergence as a writer to be watched.

San Antonio Express News

January 5, 1997
By Judith Rigler

“Harlan and Erban Kern were in the kitchen eating breakfast when their living room floor collapsed.”

Try putting that one down without wanting to read on. And the excellence of this unassuming, understated 161-page story is even more surprising in that it’s a first novel . . . . While the well-developed characters of Harlan and Erban carry the novel, minor characters such as Doc Krantz and Flukey and Virginia West contribute to the tone of hope and rebirth.

Willy Slater’s Lane is touching and funny and life-affirming, a good start for 1997.

Emerging Writer’s Network (Five Stars)

By Dan Wickett

Willy Slater’s Lane shows just what a writer can do in terms of keeping the attention of his/her readers without having a jam-packed adventure of a plot. Wieland writes the story of two brothers and the lives they lead after their parents’ deaths.

The brothers, Harlan and Erban Kern, remain on their parents’ property, living with Harlan’s wife, Elizabeth. The story opens with the living room caving in as the floors have rotted through. The brothers, who don’t work a lick, find this to be only a minor problem as they block off the doorway, having saved the couch, placing it in the kitchen, and Erban’s encyclopedia set. The Kerns live off of the money they received for selling the majority of their father’s farmland to a neighbor. His monthly payments were stored in glass jars underground on the property the boys held onto.

Wieland fully develops his characters, creating memorable individuals that are not far-fetched at all.

Harlan is a domineering person, beyond the likes usually seen. He is physically imposing compared to his brother, and has an absolute distrust and dislike of all people. While he gets along with Erban, it certainly seems that he could do without him.

Erban wants nothing more than to sit and discuss things with others. He reads of far off places and exotic things in his encyclopedia and enjoys looking at the stars while the other two watch television. Once the living room gave way, with no television, Erban found himself alone earlier than usual as Harland and Elizabeth went to bed after dinner.

Harlan found Elizabeth through a newspaper classified that she had placed. She had only wanted to get away from her father and the mining town she hailed from. She came to live with Harlan and Erban and while driving from the train stop, looked out the window and marveled at the landscape and praised her decision. It wasn’t until she arrived at the ‘homestead’ that she fully realized what she might be getting into. Still, she reasoned, it was better than home.

In the middle of the story, an illness leaves Elizabeth near death, and Erban calls Doctor Krantz, after Harlan told him not to. Harlan believes she is faking her unconsciousness, profuse sweating and refusal to consume foods or liquid. It happens to be winter, and in order to keep her warm, Erban carries her (she’s probably close to twice his weight – leading to his walking with a curved back from that day forward) out to his bed which he’s pushed into the kitchen near the stove. He sits up with her at night and as she slowly comes around, she develops feelings for him, which she acts out one day in the barn.

It is this act that causes a great shift in the story. After barricading herself in their bedroom for a night, Elizabeth leaves the Kern farm, never to see the brothers again. It is this event that turns the tone of the book around. While Harlan is still overbearing, Erban assuming the cooking and cleaning roles, seems to gain stature while his posture droops.

Harlan has an accident while driving home drunk from the main town, killing himself as he drives into a lake. This leads to a major change in the storyline as Dr. Krantz replaces Harlan as a main character, befriending Erban, visiting every night after work and sitting, discussing events an theories deep into the night.

Wieland gives his readers a lovely tale of survival and belief in humanity, allowing Erban to become a sort of rural angel throughout the end of the novel. By spurning the ways of Harlan, and allowing the Doctor to become his friend, Erban has refreshed Krantz’s life—reminding him of the reasons to be excited just to be alive each day. Erban and the Kern farm (at this point, the entire house is underground and Erban lives in a refurnished bus) become a place where visitors are welcomed, and enjoyed. People leave happier, feeling better about the world they must encounter on a daily basis.

The ending incident, dealing with a patient Krantz deals with, and his discovery about her and her mother’s life can be spotted ahead of its arrival as the conclusion of the book, but this is the logical conclusion and not a foreshadowing that Wieland could have avoided. His handling of this, and the smooth way he reminds his readers of their effect on those they encounter daily is more than enough reason to anxiously await future works.