Monday, July 16, 2012

Book Review - Homer & Langley

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

Reviewed by Karen E. Quinones Miller for The Philadelphia Inquirer

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.