Book World: Michael Dirda on E.L. Doctorow's 'Homer & Langley'

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, September 3, 2009


By E.L. Doctorow

Random House. 208 pp. $26

Nearly everyone who collects anything with any degree of obsessiveness has heard of Homer and Langley, the protagonists of E.L. Doctorow's latest historical fantasia. Usually, the pair are simply referred to as the Collyer brothers. Eccentric, reclusive and at least half crazy, the two resided in a huge New York brownstone in Harlem that they had inherited from their gynecologist father. Over the course of their lives, Homer and Langley gradually packed every room and the back yard with newspapers and cast-off junk. Eventually, only narrow passageways connected the brothers' burrowlike living areas. When a booby-trapped tunnel collapsed onto Langley, he was crushed and suffocated, while his trapped brother, who was blind, slowly starved to death. Officials claim that they removed 100 tons of refuse from the building.

All that is true. You can look it up on Wikipedia.

But, as with his much admired novels "The Book of Daniel," "Ragtime," "Billy Bathgate" and "The March," Doctorow again creatively reconfigures and amplifies the historical record. The real Collyer brothers died in 1947; in Doctorow's "Homer and Langley," they live into the late 1970s. In the novel they have no siblings; in actuality, there was a sister. Of course, such divergences from "fact" are unimportant: Doctorow is writing a work of fiction, not a dual biography. He imagines the Collyers' inner lives and all the servants, socialites, gangsters, hippies and bankers they interact with. In a somewhat March-of-Time fashion, the brothers' experiences are obviously made to hold up a mirror to the 20th century. Some might call it a distorting mirror, since they find the world to be largely depressing, horrific and constantly invasive. Langley, especially, regards people and events with a grim, sardonic humor.

Still, it's the blind Homer who tells this modern epic tale, steadily tapping away on a Braille typewriter. He opens by depicting Gilded Age New York, when his well-to-do parents regularly traveled to Europe and sent home crates of souvenirs: "ancient Islamic tiles, or rare books, or a marble water fountain, or busts of Romans with no noses or missing ears, or antique armoires with their fecal smell." He adds, with dry wit, that "there were always presents for Langley and me, things to really excite a boy, like an antique toy train that was too delicate to play with, or a gold-plated hairbrush."

Before long, though, disasters arrive in a flurry: The teenaged Homer loses his sight, the older Langley is gassed in World War I, and both parents suddenly die during the great flu pandemic of 1918. The two brothers, severely chastened by these awful experiences, turn increasingly inward, even as Langley begins his compulsive collecting:

"When Langley brings something into the house that has caught his fancy -- a piano, a toaster, a Chinese bronze horse, a set of encyclopedias -- that is just the beginning. Whatever it is, it will be acquired in several versions because until he loses his interest and goes on to something else he'll be looking for its ultimate expression."

In fact, while Homer is essentially an artist, a lover of music and words, Langley is a man of grand theories. He speculates that history is based on everything being constantly replaced, that poetry is full of ideas but fiction is just stories, that one could construct a single ideal edition of the daily newspaper and thus capture all of American life in "what he called Collyer's eternally current dateless newspaper, the only newspaper anyone would ever need."

In a sense, Doctorow's novel provides -- in outline form -- a comparable Platonic overview of American life in the 20th century, touching on familiar and perennial American obsessions, including xenophobia, racism, criminality, imperialism and religion: Homer sleeps with an ambitious Irish immigrant maid; the Collyers' cook is African American with a cornet-playing nephew from New Orleans; during the Depression the brothers hope to make ends meet by hosting tea dances in their salon. They meet gangsters and corrupt policemen; employ a Japanese Nisei couple during the early part of World War II; learn about the Holocaust from a Jewish veteran of the Great War; see people they care about horribly murdered; and during the Vietnam War era actually become gurus to a band of pot-smoking flower children, largely because they, too, never cut their hair and dress in tattered army fatigues.

As it happens, the brothers also inspire a series of underground cartoons, rather like those of R. Crumb, in which they are depicted as "gray-haired lechers with little heads with bulging eyes and buck teeth and," as Langley says, "our legs get wider as they reach the ankles and our feet are fitted with enormous shoes." In the 1960s and '70s, the pair watch game shows and the moon landing on TV, and argue about the 900 suicides of the Jim Jones cult. During the notorious New York blackout, Homer leads people to safety like the blind slave at the end of Bulwer Lytton's "The Last Days of Pompeii."

All this ebb and flow of history is filtered through the sensibility of the two brothers, and thus everything is tinged with a kind of gray sadness. Take the Depression-era tea dances, at which Homer mans the Victrola:

"Whenever I happened to play one of the livelier numbers, the dancers would leave the floor. Anything fast and happy, and they would sit right down. I would hear the chairs scraping. I said to Langley, The people who come to our tea dance have no fight left in them. They are not interested in having a good time. They come here to hold each other. That's basically what they want to do, hold one another and drift around the room."

He concludes that the dances are nothing but "occasions for public mourning." Actually, to hold one another and drift around the room is a pretty good description of the human condition.

As the years go by, these once nattily dressed scions of a wealthy family grow into Samuel Beckett characters, surrounded by garbage, eating out of cans, scavenging their drinking water from a public faucet in the park. Is this, in allegory, the grim history of the United States during the last century? Do the Collyers represent the endpoint of our current culture of gated communities and the constant acquisition of more and more stuff? The brothers themselves certainly never find any happiness in their tottering piles of junk -- and almost none in their entire lives, for that matter. To think, as Homer says with wonder, that "as little boys we sat on the thick rugs and pushed our toy cars along the patterns." But, then, Homer is the sentimental one, the musician, the lover. As the atheist Langley observes, "To be a man in this world is to face the hard real life of awful circumstance, to know there is only life and death and such varieties of human torment as to confound any such personage as God."

There's a briskness to "Homer & Langley" that never flags, and its solitary protagonists -- two lost souls -- possess a half-comical, half-nightmarish fascination. They seem, at once, symbols of both American materialism and of American loneliness. Think of Melville's "isolatoes," or of all those forlorn men in shirt sleeves and the dispirited women of Edward Hopper's paintings, or of Hank Williams singing "I'm so lonesome I could cry." In real life, the Collyer brothers are kin to the hermitlike diarist Arthur Inman, up in his Boston bedroom, paying strangers to tell him about their sex lives, or to the bohemian Joe Gould, at work on his mammoth oral history of our time, or to . . . But why go on? The darkness surrounds us, and awaits. "And so do people pass out of one's life," concludes the insightful if sightless Homer Collyer, "and all you can remember of them is their humanity, a poor fitful thing of no dominion, like your own."

Dirda -- writes each Thursday in Style.

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