Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow. Random House, 2009.
What would cause two brothers to fill their home with over 100 tons of refuse and clutter?
Doctorow has based his latest novel on two brothers who were notorious recluses in Harlem, New York City. It was widely publicized in 1947 when the Collyers were found dead in their brownstone underneath heaps of newspapers and debris. A quick google image search will come up with photographs of the crumbling home with stacks of garbage rising to the ceiling. Even today, the term ‘Collyer’s mansion‘ is used by many fire departments to describe a home is dangerous and a fire hazard due to hoarding. How do two brothers end up living in such conditions? Why had they shut themselves off from the outside world? Why did they hoard so many items, including no less than fourteen pianos?
It is easy to see why Doctorow felt compelled to write about these men and try to answer some of these questions.
Although based on their actual lives, Homer and Langley, is a work of fiction. Doctorow creates his own characters out of the real people and develops plot out of these characters. He extends their lives; has them become gurus to a group of hippies. Doctorow adds auxiliary characters that move in and out of the Collyer mansion while the brothers themselves remain stationary. One can imagine that the lives of the real brothers were even more isolated and tragic.
Doctorow is able to delve into the forces that make people withdraw from society. The reader almost understands why Langley is compelled to collect and hoard such a variety of items. But you still find yourself wanting to yell at these characters, to tell them not to hide from the world. As a reader you become frustrated and unsure if Doctorow has done this purposefully, or if this is a fault in the novel. It seems that he has not gone deeply enough into their movitations and reasoning.
Perhaps part of this frustration comes from the fact that the narrating brother is blind. The reader feels as if they have to be missing part of the picture, seeing the brother’s lives through unseeing eyes. It becomes stifling, but maybe this is part of the brilliance of Doctorow’s writing; how else would a blind man surrounded by towers of newspaper feel?
In the end, Homer and Langley is a good, short read. The ending of the book captures the horror that many people must have felt in 1947, when the brothers’ bodies were discovered. It is not Doctorow’s best work, but it is worth reading. Partly because it is based on such a sad true story, these characters within will resonate with the reader long after the book is finished.
For more about the real Collyers, click here.