2010-10-14 / Opinions

Homer and Langley By E.L. DOCTOROW

Book Review
The media have kept us informed about “hoarders” recently. In an extreme example, the reclusive Collyer brothers died in New York City in their Fifth Avenue home amid piles of old publications and objects a number of years ago. Others have woven stories around their strange situation, and E.L. Doctorow has written this novel based on their lives.

Beginning with some of the known facts about them, he has extended their lives to include many 20th Century events, and imagined how they came to live the lives we’ve heard about.

Homer, the younger brother, became blind as a child, and he is the narrator of the story. He says that his sight faded gradually, and remembers, “and then all my sight was gone though I could heaer clearly the scoot scut of the blades on the ice, a very satisfying soung, a soft sound though full of intention, a deeper tone than you’d expect made by the skate blades, perhaps for having sounded the resonant basso of the water under the ice, scoot scut, scoot scut.”

His wealthy parents did not spend much time with their sons, but Langley watched over Homer and was impressed at how well he could get around in his blindness. Homer became an accomplished pianist, and the young ladies found him attractive in his “helplessness,” though he states that he could not take advantage of their interest.

Langley, older by two years, had an inquiring mind and developed theories about life and humanity. He was able to go to college, and shared much of his education with his brother. However, he had to serve in World War I, and returned home damaged by mustard gas and the war experience. Their parents had died in the flu epidemic, and the two brothers lived on in their brownstone mansion with their cook, housekeeper, and maid.

Langley became increasingly eccentric. He had a project, which consisted of counting and filing news stories according to category. He planned to create the ultimate newspaper, which would contain everything, and thus no more papers would be needed. Not only did newspapers pile up, but also he brought home all kinds of other things. Most dramatically, he installed a Model T in the dining room.

Gradually the whole house filled up with his obsession, until Homer could no longer find his way easily through the accumulations. Meanwhile, the brothers made the acquaintance of a few outsiders. One was the cook’s musically talented grandson, but he left for World War II and did not come back. A group of hippies met Homer and Langley in the park and took up residency with them, bringing in friends and coming and going freely.

In his diary (that forms the novel), Homer remembers that time with great affection. A gangster whom they met in early days at a nightclub took refuge in their house for a few days when threatened by rival gangsters. That was “one more passing event in our lives -- as if our house were not our house but a road on which Langley and I were traveling like pilgrims.”

The servants had departed years before, and so Homer ended his days unable to get through the mess that has become their house, dependent on his brother for meals and care. One day he heard a loud crash. “Where is Langley? Where is my brother?”

Homer & Langley is available at the Mary Willis Library.

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