Friday, September 11, 2009

Book Review: Homer & Langley

Homer & Langley, E.L. Doctorow

Random House, Hardcover, 2009
ISBN 978-1400064946
224 pages

First Sentence:

“I’m Homer, the blind brother.”

Homer and Langley Collyer were real. They lived together in an opulent mansion on New York’s Fifth Avenue—privileged, wealthy, and while growing up, two normal boys. But something happened to them. They gradually became reclusive and, in their mid-sixties, were found dead in 1947 amongst mazes of stacked newspapers, rooms full of useless junk—and a Model-T Ford in the dining room. The press being the press, the tabloids sensationalized the Collyer brothers with photos and skewed facts, making laughingstocks out of two men who only wanted to be left alone.

Rather than rehash what little is actually known of the Collyers, Doctorow has chosen to fictionalize their lives in this short novel (203 pages). He becomes Homer, the narrator throughout the book, who types on a Braille keyboard and prints the English characters on paper. With prodigious imagination and authorly license, Doctorow does a superb job of recreating Homer and Langley as flesh and blood people.

Homer started going blind in his late teens, but he accepted it by honing his other senses. Langley went to France in WWI, where a surprise mustard gas attack permanently seared his throat and lungs. In 1918, their parents died of the Spanish flu epidemic, leaving the brothers in the care of the household staff. Eventually the staff left too, leaving the Collyers to fend for themselves.

They weren’t very good at it. Langley was a man with big ideas, quite possibly a genius, but his mind came home from France as damaged as his body. Homer said, several times, that he though Langley was going insane. And later in life, increasingly paranoid.

So where did the tons of junk come from, and for what purpose? I leave that for you, the reader, to find out.

And why did Homer, growing helpless and hampered by all the debris in every room, stay with Langley? Because of love. Quite simply the brothers loved each other, and that is what made them human.

The New York Times panned the book, calling it “episodic.” But what is life if not episodic? Life is a series of episodes, some planned and many not, a path filled with hills and valleys, the good and the bad, and most of all, no plot.

So it is with Homer & Langley, a small masterpiece that I highly recommend.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

I saw a play about the Collyers a couple of years ago. It was fascinating! I think I will have to read this book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

St Jude said...

I agree sounds interesting, another one to add to the bookshelf me thinks.

PI said...

The brothers remind me of the mother and daughter - vaguely related to Jackie Kennedy.
This book sounds very readable in spite of the stupid crit'epesodic.'
However I have to feel fairly strong to read the like as I get older and think of the accumulation of 'stuff' we have garnered over the years and the attic etc etc etc. Can you understand?

Peter S. said...

Hi, Charlie! Thanks for this review. It reminded me of one of my favorite reads by the same author -- Ragtime. Perhaps it's time for me to read another novel by Doctorow again.

Escapist said...

Oh Hiya !

Your words shows book need to be mugged up in one go..
I like to read books...


Charlie said...

BARBARA: A play about the Collyers sounds fascinating. When I did the review I wondered if anyone had ever heard of them.

ST JUDE: I don't know what your reading tastes are, but I try to review books that will appeal to a general audience (as opposed to book nuts).

PAT: I wouldn't worry, dear heart. We all accumulate "stuff" throughout our lives and have a broken toaster or two in the attic, but nothing like the Collyer brothers.

You never told me whether or not you enjoyed The Convict stories—if indeed you've finished them.

PETER: This is my first Doctorow book since Ragtime, which I liked. I'm not generally a Doctorow fan.

ESCAPIST: Welcome, and thank you for your comment. I agree that sometimes it is nice to read a book in one sitting—that is why I read a lot of "short" stories.

Tiffin said...

Good review, Charlie, thanks for it. You made me want to read it but I don't know if it's the kind of thing I can read, getting too emotional about the subjects and all that, the poor souls. It's getting good reviews on LT, so critics be damned.

Charlie said...

TUI: To me, the book wasn't overly emotional. There were times when I felt badly for them, but never to the point of tears.

Now, if you want to talk about tears and The Book Thief ...

Kevin Musgrove said...

Thanks for this critique, Charlie. I'd violently taken agin this book because the site I use for my reading lists has been pushing it like crazy. You've provided a useful anodyne.

"Episodic" is useful for anybody who can't guarantee having the time to read in one lump.

PI said...

I'm just finishing 'Texas city' which I'm enjoying. For some reason my mind kept wandering during 'When it's Decoration Day' - maybe because I was a bit stressed at the time. I don't feel I've given it a fair chance with my concentration flitting around.

koonsmother said...

High Five, Charlie. I really enjoyed this book, too. You and me vs. The New York Times book critic. No contest.

Meg said...

I love first sentences like that - the sort that capture your attention so well.

Diane said...

I just found your blog; it's great. I read Homer & Langley this past week, and I was somewhat disappointed. I expected to love it, but it took me 100 pages to start liking it.

Charlie said...

KEVIN: I read so slowly that just about everything more than a dozen pages is a lump.

PAT: At least you're plugging away at it, and "Decoration Day" is not an easy story—I had to read it twice to appreciate it.

KM: How the hell many names do you have?

As far as the New York Times, they're all a bunch of book snobs. Now, if it was a book about fly fishing in Albania . . .

MEG: How about this opening sentence: "It was a dark and stormy night . . ."

DIANE: Welcome, and thanks for the compliment. It's only natural that a book will not appeal to everyone and there are flaws in H&L, but I liked it because it was something different.

I read your review and it was excellent.