Sunday, February 14, 2010

11. Homer & Langley: A Novel by E. L. Doctorow

Homer and Langley Collyer were real-life hoarders who lived in New York during the first half of the twentieth century. In his new novel, E.L. Doctorow appropriates the famous brothers as characters and tells a fictional story around them. Most of the details and side characters are made up, but in some cases they are drawn from items found in the 140 tons of junk removed from the house on 5th Avenue after the brothers were found dead. So the novel provides a back story for the collection of old bicycles, the musical instruments, the thousands of newspapers and books, the old medical equipment, and the Ford Model T in the dining room. All these are explained in the story so that, while they aren't exactly normal things to obsessively bring into a house they at least seem like reasonable acquisitions at the time.

In addition to the fictitious account of the two brothers, the novel is about a time and place- New York City from the 1920's through the 1960's. It reminded me a bit of Forrest Gump the way pivotal events of those decades kept passing through their lives. Silent films, Jazz musicians, Gangsters, speakeasies, two world wars, Japanese internment camps, and a group of free-spirited hippies all play a role in this fictional account of the reclusive brothers lives. Doctorow even gives them an additional two decades to extend his story through the 1960's whereas the real Collyer brothers died in 1947.

What is fascinating about the novel is the way that the tragedy sneaks up on you. We know that this will end with an almost complete withdrawal from society, chronic hoarding, and the brothers dying amid the junk that has consumed their rotting Harlem brownstone. Yet at the beginning of the novel they seem almost completely normal. Homer begins to loose his eyesight as a teenager and soon he is completely blind, yet he remains fairly normal despite the handicap. Langley returns from World War I the victim of a gas attack with a persistent cough and the seeds of mental instability that will eventually be the brother's downfall. Still, they have a cook and a housekeeper and a large sum of money left by their parents. They have interests, they host and attend parties, and they go out frequently to walk and interact with the world. Gradually they withdraw, or they encounter events that make them more fearful and guarded against the outside world. Eventually, they are boarding up the windows and living as shut-ins without electricity or running water.

The story is especially tragic because it is told from Homer's point of view in the first person. Homer's blindness makes him very dependent on Langley, who is clearly the more disturbed of the two. Homer seems crazy by proxy, conforming to the eccentric behavior exampled by his brother because that is all he knows. Homer is intelligent and insightful. He is easygoing and for the most part he is happy. He is sometimes worried about his brother, and the deterioration of the conditions they live in, but mostly they get along well and enjoy their life.

The story, too, is mostly happy and uplifting. It is episodic and spans a large part of early twentieth century American history. It is touching and thoughtful and well-written by Doctorow. This is one I am comfortable recommending to anyone who likes to read, watches "Hoarders" on A&E, and wishes Fincher did a better job with Benjamin Button.

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