BOOK REVIEW – “A MYTHIC JOKE” – October 2009

Homer & Langley, by E.L. Doctorow

Reviewed by Rima Walker

Doctorow’s forte is writing fiction about the past, his characters informed by history and set in the eras he chooses, making it all come alive through the immediacy of his striking prose. Doctorow places a spell on the reader so that one becomes not just an observer but a person living and breathing in that era, taking part in it, making it happen. Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, The Waterworks, and recently The March, as well as many others, take us into worlds that existed before our time and make them real.

This richly detailed novel is the story of the real-life Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, who lived in a Harlem brownstone, scions of a wealthy family and orphaned by the flu epidemic of 1918. Little was known of them, eccentrics who lived almost mythic lives behind the walls of their mansion, hardly ever going out except for Langley who accrued masses of newspapers and junk until there were almost no passageways to move from room to room. In 1947, when the police went to the mansion, they had to uncover masses of detritus, dubbed by Langley in the novel as “artifacts of our American life”, in order to find the corpses of the two brothers who lived without water and electricity, with no help from the outside. One brother died of starvation, the other was killed by one of his own traps made from pounds and pounds of trash and newspapers.

Through Homer, blind like the great Homer who tells the story of Odysseus and of the fall of Troy, we enter into the surrealistic world of the two brothers, Langley who was gassed in WWI and Homer himself who, blind and later deaf, is totally dependent on Langley when he returns from the war.

At first they lead lives of profligacy, spending their considerable inheritance at dance halls and on alcohol and women. But as time passes, Langley falls into madness and obsessively starts collecting newspapers and then anything he can find, several pianos and a Model T Ford included. His goal is to write the ultimate newspaper using outside events. Doctorow takes a liberty here in terms of time: he has the brothers live through the ‘60s in order to comment upon what was happening out in the world they did not dwell in but about which they had strong opinions. For Langley, all of this was grist for his mill: the creation of a newspaper that would “fix American life finally in one edition … (an) eternally current dateless newspaper, the only newspaper anyone would ever need.”

But soon Langley dives deeper into his mad obsessions while Homer tries to find the sense of life through his music. The servants are gone, the money is fast disappearing, and, hermit-like, they isolate themselves and start to fade away into the squalor of their decaying home and decaying bodies. They come to the attention of the public and the police through the complaints of neighbors who can’t bear the junk-infested back garden and from the bank that holds the mortgage, unpaid for months.

But this is more than a retelling of the tragic, albeit seemingly ridiculous, lives of two brothers who became a legend after their strange deaths. It is more a character study of the intense, philosophical brother Langley and the lonely, hurting Homer who surely wanted more out of life than he had. Doctorow’s portrait of Homer is poignant and very moving, especially towards the end when Homer begins to hallucinate about a young woman who saved his life in the street. He writes this memoir for her and awaits her return. The last scene of this novel is a heartbreaker.

The Collyer brothers became characters in an urban fairytale with many news articles, books, and a play written about them, but perhaps none so sympathetic as Doctorow’s. ~