Sunday, September 05, 2010

Title: Homer & Langley
Author: – E. L. Doctorow
Publisher – Random House
September 2009

I need – yes, need – to start off this review of E. L. Doctorow’s latest novel, Homer & Langley, by saying that I’m a fan of Doctorow. I’ve read most of his books (Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, and Waterworks are my favorites), and have been looking forward to reading his new literary work for months.

When I read the very first line in the book, “I’m Homer, the blind brother, I didn’t lose my sight all at once, it was like the movies, a slow fade-out,” I let out a sigh of pleasure. The writing already proved to be exquisite. And the writing remained a masterpiece throughout the book; it was the story that I found lacking.

Homer & Langley is based on two real life brothers who died in 1947. Homer and Langley Collyer lived in New York City and became infamous as much for the way they died as the way they lived. Sons of a wealthy gynecologist and opera singer, they were raised in the lap of luxury, but when they died in they were the city’s best known recluses. Though they were quite wealthy they lived in squalor. When they died the city removed more than 100 tons of debris and junk from their Fifth Avenue brownstone.

Being born in New York, I was familiar with the Collyer story. My mother would often come into my messy bedroom and tell me that it looked like the Collyer brothers lived there. Knowing a bit of the history made me all the more eager to read Homer & Langley.

In Doctorow’s book, the Collyers don’t perish in 1947, but in fact live through the late 1970s or early 1980s, and Doctorow manages to weave historical events from Prohibition through Watergate, into his novel. He also takes further liberties, making Langley the older brother, though in reality he was the younger. Langley serves in World War I, returning home shell-shocked (though never diagnosed), somewhat bitter, and utterly cynical. Homer is made the younger sibling who loses his sight in his teens (in reality, he lost his sight in his forties). When their parents die in the influenza epidemic in the 1919, the brothers set up housekeeping in their inherited brownstone.

Homer & Langley starts off at a rather slow pace, but there seems to be a promise of excitement. The promise centers around the brothers’ (especially Langley’s) eccentricities. Like the idea to have tea-dances in their home during the Depression, much to their neighbor’s dismay. And Langley’s theory that history simply keeps repeating itself and people are simply replacements for people who lived before. Therefore, he reasons, if he keeps track of every newspaper article written in a three, four, or five year period he can write an eternally current newspaper – only one edition needed – that will provide all the information that anyone need ever know. Though the theory seems dubious to Homer, he accepts it, just as he accepts Langley’s eccentric junk collecting.

And In the beginning of the novel, Homer is shown to be quite independent, having a relationship with one of the house servants, befriending the coronet playing grandson of the cook, and developing a crush on an assistant hired to accompany him to his job as a pianist at a local movie theater.

But while these eccentricities and events are recounted, they’re never fully felt by the reader. Homer, the narrator, has a distant way of detailing events that never fully manages to draw the reader in. Even the scene where a quartet of organized crime members take the brothers hostage in their own home falls flat.

Instead of fulfilling its promise of excitement, the book actually becomes more and more depressing. And Langley’s descent from eccentricity to full-blown madness is never really explained.

I won’t reveal the last sentence of the book, but it is as depressing as the first sentence is beautiful. The only book I’ve ever read that disturbed me as much was Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun about a World War I soldier who has lost his arms, face, legs, tongue, and face in the war. I kept reading because I thought there had to be some kind of payoff ; like some kind of series of surgery that would miraculously -- if not make him whole – at least allow the soldier some semblance of a real life. It never happened. But at least that book had a social message; war is Hell.

Homer & Langley has no such social or moral message, so it just left me feeling sad and miserable.

Info on the REAL Homer and Langley

Homer (1881-1947) and Langley (1885-1947) Collyer were sons of a wealthy gynecologist and a retired opera singer. In 1909 the family moved into a swanky brownstone on the corner of 128th Street and Fifth Avenue in Harlem, which was then a haven for upper-middle class folks wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of downtown.

Both men received degrees from Columbia University – Homer (the elder brother) studied admiralty law and worked in a law firm, and Langley studied engineering, though he never held a job. After their parents’ deaths in the 1920’s, the brothers –then in their thirties – started exhibiting strange behavior. Langley started roaming the streets of New York and bringing home all kinds of discarded items, a.k.a. junk. When Homer went blind in 1932 and was forced to retire from the work force, Langley’s junk collecting increased. Now he also started collecting newspapers. He would later say that he was storing them for Homer, so that he could catch up on the news when he regained his sight. And in fact, Langley prescribed his older brother a diet of 100 hundred oranges a week to cure him of his blindness.

In 1938 the electricity, gas, and water were turned off because the brothers refused to pay their utility bills. They then heated with a small kerosene heater which was kept in the living room. For water Langley would nightly walk four blocks to Mount Morris Park and fill buckets from a water pump. Their failure to pay their bills was not, however, because the brothers were broke. This was proven, in 1942, when the bank attempted to foreclose on the house because of a delinquent mortgage. When the sheriff arrived to evict them, Langley grandly wrote a check for $6,700 (almost $100,000 in today’s dollars), paying off the entire mortgage, and ordered the interloper off of his property.

When the newspapers got wind of the story they wrote articles speculating that the Collyers were hoarding not just junk, but also cash and treasure. Langley responded by closing the shutters over the windows, blocking out prying eyes but also sunlight. His hoarding also had increased, and he started piling stacks of books and newspapers against the doors and windows, in order to thwart break-in attempts. Using his engineering skills he devised a maze of bobby-trapped tunnels through the junk so that he could move about.

In 1947 the police received a tip that there was a dead body in the Collyer house. It took them two hours after breaking down the door to enter the house because of the blockade of newspapers. When they finally made it to a second-story bedroom they found Homer’s body. He had died of starvation. It took two weeks more to find Langley’s body. He had been buried alive when he accidentally tripped a booby trap while making his way through one of his junk tunnels to bring Homer food. The city eventually removed more than 100 tons of junk and debris from the house which was subsequently torn down.

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