Homer & Langley, E.L. Doctorow
Random House, Hardcover, 2009
“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.