Review by Craig Seligman
|E. L. Doctorow|
Aug. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Homer and Langley Collyer became famous in 1947, when they were found dead in their Harlem mansion. They weren’t easy to extract: The entrance hall was choked with gargantuan piles of junk and old newspapers.
The police got in through the second story, eventually excavating their way to Homer’s corpse. The house was so clogged with detritus that it took an additional two and a half weeks to locate Langley under a stack of toppled debris. He probably had tripped a wire and been clobbered by one of his own booby traps; Homer, blind and utterly dependent, had starved to death.
A cautionary hoarding tale, in other words. How many people have muttered the words “Collyer brothers” as they regretfully dumped a stack of old New Yorkers?
But E.L. Doctorow sees a more engaging side to their story, and in “Homer & Langley,” his 11th novel, he freely alters the facts to bring it out.
He moves the brothers’ mansion 30 blocks or so down Fifth Avenue, situating it across from Central Park. He shifts their birthdates forward and extends their lives by several decades, so that Homer, his narrator, can reflect -- in sublime Doctorovian prose -- on such landmark events as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the moon landing and the murder of the Maryknoll nuns in El Salvador.
Most important, the new time scheme allows the brothers to bring a group of flower children home to crash (“meaning, as I was to learn, boarding with us”). We can see why the kids take to them so quickly: They recognize the brothers’ long unkempt hair and their ratty sweaters and army boots as marks of kinship. In their eyes, Homer and Langley are proto-hippies -- “prophets of a new age.”
Doctorow certainly sees them as something more than paranoid recluses, making the case (or allowing Homer to) that they were bright oddities “living original self-directed lives unintimidated by convention.” Among the conventions they ignore are paying their bills and cleaning their house.
But Homer is also aware, at least at the end, that “every instance of our creativity and resolute expression of our principles was in service of our ruination.” Then again, at that late point in life, ruination isn’t all that rare even for the ultraconventional.
The historical Homer lost his sight in his 50s, after a stroke. Doctorow’s goes poetically blind in his late teens; the novel opens with a beautiful description of his fading vision. His blindness has made him curiously passive.
“Langley has a world view,” Homer explains, “and since I don’t have one of my own I have always gone along with what he does.”
Perhaps this docility explains the peculiar mildness of his tone. Langley returns from World War I felled by mustard gas and enraged at the inhumanity of war, but Homer shows no anger at the fate that has blinded him, or at much of anything else.
Though he speaks of melancholy, what we see is a dazed adaptability that allows him to shrug off Langley’s burgeoning piles of junk even as they make it increasingly impossible to navigate the house.
On top of it all, late in life his hearing begins to go, too. “I am grateful,” he writes -- the “grateful” is characteristic -- “to have this typewriter, and the reams of paper beside my chair, as the world has shuttered slowly closed, intending to leave me only my consciousness.”
That “shuttered” connects Homer’s mind and the darkened mansion, crystallizing the house’s symbolism as a repository of consciousness: a place loaded with stuff that could be potentially useful (we hope, we hope) or might turn out to be so much junk. By the end of our lives, we all live in cluttered mansions.
“Homer & Langley” is from Random House in the U.S. (208 pages, $26). In the U.K., it will be published by Little, Brown in January 2010.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer on the story: Craig Seligman at firstname.lastname@example.org.Last Updated: August 29, 2009 00:01 EDT