Doctorow recounts the lives of quirky, quintessential New Yorkers ‘Homer & Langley’

August 27, 2012

American historical novelist E.L. Doctorow revisits a familiar stomping ground, the New York City of decades past, in his 2009 novel, Homer & Langley.

The tale of the Collyer brothers is narrated by the younger sibling. “I’m Homer, the blind brother,” he discloses in the novel’s opening line. Doctorow’s narrative takes us from the brothers’ childhood in the early 20th century until — well, I don’t want to reveal the ending, although it is relatively well known.

That’s because Doctorow’s story is based on the actual Collyer family; the rather notorious Homer and Langley were inheritors and longtime residents of their parents’ elegant home on Fifth Avenue in upper Manhattan. A great deal of the narrative appears to have been invented by Doctorow, although just how much is unclear; the hardcover edition of Homer & Langley that I read had no author’s note, unfortunately, and Doctorow’s website does not appear to explain how the novel deviates from real life.

In any case, Doctorow’s fictionalized Collyers were born around the turn of the 20th century; Homer, the younger by two years, is a gifted pianist. A quick check of Wikipedia and some other sources indicates that the actual brothers were born in the 1880s; that Langley was four years younger and a gifted pianist; and that Homer actually practiced law, rather than Langley, as in the novel. Truth and fiction concur with on Langley’s enthusiasm for fad diets of his own devising.

I note these facts not to criticize Doctorow, who is certainly entitled to employ artistic license, but simply to warn that while there are kernels of truth in Homer & Langley, many details are invented.

That said, I enjoyed the book. At just over 200 pages, it’s a relatively short read. Moreover, it’s well written, and the quirky protagonists are certainly interesting. Doctorow’s time shift enables Homer and Langley to serve as a fascinating prism on much of the 20th century.

To compensate for his lack of sight, which had its onset in his late teenage years, Homer has memorized the urban landscape for 20 blocks around the Collyer mansion, sharpened his hearing to a preternatural level, and developed a sort of sixth sense that — at least within the family home, and for a time — allows him to navigate indoors with terrific faculty. Still, his ability to compensate falters over the years, leaving him increasingly isolated from his brother and from everyone else.

Langley, “lung-shot and half insane,” in Homer’s words, was left permanently scarred by his military service in the Great War. Per his grand theory that all of human history simply represents variations on a theme, he collects and categorizes countless newspapers with the aim of assembling Collyer’s One Edition for All Time.

It was a huge enterprise and occupied him for several hours each day. He would run out for all the morning papers, and in the afternoon for the evening papers, and then there were the business papers, the sex gazettes, the freak sheets, the vaudeville papers, and so on. He wanted to fix American life finally in one edition, what he called Collyer’s eternally current dateless newspaper, the only newspaper anyone would ever need.

For five cents, Langley said, the reader will have a portrait in newsprint of our life on earth. The stories will not have overly particular details as you find in ordinary daily rags, because the real news here is of the Universal Forms of which any particular detail would only be an example. The reader will always be up to date, and au courant with what is going on. He will be assured that he reads of indisputable truths of the day including that of his own impending death, which will be dutifully recorded as a number in the blank box on the last page under the heading Obituaries.

Of course I was dubious about all of this. Who would want to buy such a newspaper? I couldn’t imagine a news story that assured you that something was happening but didn’t tell you where or when or to whom it was happening.

My brother laughed. But Homer, he said, wouldn’t you spend a nickel for such a paper if you didn’t have to buy another ever again? I admit this would be bad for the fish business but we have to think always of the greatest good for the greatest number.

The brothers’ parents succumbed to flu during the Great War, and in time the Collyers’ small household staff dwindles. Other people may live in the home, even for years at a time, but Homer and Langley remain its only permanent residents. They are also joined in time by vermin that live among the ever-increasing clutter.

A major aspect of Homer & Langley is the tension between dreams and reality, principle and pragmatism, individual and community. Fantasies such as Langley’s eternal newspaper and Homer’s inamorata fuel both of the Collyers when otherwise they might have nothing to live for; yet their unwillingness — or inability — to accommodate harsh reality condemns them to a slow but certain downward spiral of decay.

I grew up near New York City; the lives of the fictional Collyers coincided with those of my late grandparents, who were all New Yorkers in adulthood (at least one was born and raised there), meaning that this book appealed to me for personal reasons. But I suspect that Homer & Langley can be enjoyed by a much audience than aficionados only of New York history, or of historical fiction in general. It’s a solid novel, superficially simple but exploring themes and emotions of real depth. I recommend it.

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