From Ragtime and Billy Bathgate to The Book of Daniel, World’s Fair, and The March, the novels of E. L. Doctorow comprise one of the most substantive achievements of modern American fiction. Now, with Homer & Langley, this master novelist has once again created an unforgettable work.
Homer and Langley Collyer are brothers–the one blind and deeply intuitive, the other damaged into madness, or perhaps greatness, by mustard gas in the Great War. They live as recluses in their once grand Fifth Avenue mansion, scavenging the city streets for things they think they can use, hoarding the daily newspapers as research for Langley’s proposed dateless newspaper whose reportage will be as prophecy. Yet the epic events of the century play out in the lives of the two brothers–wars, political movements, technological advances–and even though they want nothing more than to shut out the world, history seems to pass through their cluttered house in the persons of immigrants, prostitutes, society women, government agents, gangsters, jazz musicians . . . and their housebound lives are fraught with odyssean peril as they struggle to survive and create meaning for themselves.
Brilliantly conceived, gorgeously written, this mesmerizing narrative, a free imaginative rendering of the lives of New York’s fabled Collyer brothers, is a family story with the resonance of myth, an astonishing masterwork unlike any that have come before from this great writer.
When I reached the end of this book, I was struck with the utterly overwhelming sadness I felt for the Collyer brothers. Their lives seemed to start out with some promise of normalcy. They had relatively normal parents – a bit overly prim and proper, perhaps, but with a large group of friends with whom they socialized regularly. They were wealthy, had a beautiful house in a posh part of New York City with a view of Central Park, and many valuable antiques and pieces of art. There was so much promise for them to have fulfilling and eventful lives until Langley was physically and emotionally scarred from the war (and mustard gas), and Homer slowly lost his sight. As the years past, the brothers became more & more reclusive, Langley became more & more paranoid, and Homer became more & more dependent upon Langley as he lost not only his sight but his hearing as well. Couple their physical and mental deterioration with Langley’s uncontrollable compulsion to hoard EVERYTHING, and it became a recipe for disaster…which, of course, is what eventually led to their demise.
The utterly overwhelming nature of their hoarding provoked me to look them up online to see if I could get an accurate visual idea of their living conditions. After looking at the pictures, it seems amazing to me that they were able to function, even at a basic level, for as long as they did. I don’t think I have ever heard of or seen anything quite like it before, and likely never will again. I thought Doctorow did a good job of bringing this story to life, and perhaps that most evident in the fact that when I came to the end of the book, I was looking around my own home with an eye for purging and reducing. I can not imagine a more miserable end than that of the Collyer brothers. It is extraordinarily sad given the completely unnecessary nature of it, and yet it makes for a mesmerizing story of how engulfing mental illness can be.