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Homer & Langley by E. L. Doctorow

Homer & Langley

by E. L. Doctorow

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
“I’m Homer, the blind brother.” So begins Homer Collyer’s narration of the story of his life and that of his “lung-shot and half insane” brother, Langley.

You may already know something of Homer and Langley Collyer, the title characters of E. L. Doctorow’s latest novel. They were real people. They made the papers in the 1940’s for their eccentric, reclusive habits, and ultimately for dying in a houseful of hoarded rubble so deep that one of their bodies could not be found for over two weeks, despite the stench of decomposition that declared it must be in there somewhere. Their names continue to be associated with hoarding and obsessive “collecting” of useless junk, with living in squalor despite having money in the bank, with abandoning society for a hermit’s isolation. Doctorow may have changed that now, having used his art to bring Homer and Langley back to life, to make them real people once more, perhaps more real to us in their fictional forms than they were to the post-war world that, having discovered them buried in their own home under piles of trash, declared their lives and deaths a tragedy. Their story has been fictionalized before, but I dare say never better than it is here.

Doctorow has revised the lifespans of the Collyer brothers, who actually lived from the 1880’s to 1947, and moved their home down Fifth Avenue south of its true location in Harlem, allowing them to experience the sweep of American History from World War I to the 1970’s. Homer may be as sightless as his namesake, but his powers of observation are keen. Through his memoir, we see the iconic events of the 20th century become personal to the brothers even as they gradually sever normal connections with the outside world.

At first, the brothers are quite social, spending many evenings in clubs and speak-easies, where they meet women, and gangsters. Homer has a job at a silent movie theater; he gives music lessons in their home. Langley has a few dates and talks of finding a wife. They hold tea dances in the dining room on Tuesday afternoons. The household continues to be run by servants, much as it was before their parents succumbed to the flu epidemic of 1918.

But as time passes, both brothers turn inward and Langley’s war wounds, mental and physical, take a greater toll on his sanity. They find fewer reasons to interact socially or even to acquiesce to society’s rules. Langley goes out twice a day for the morning and evening editions of all the New York newspapers, and to scout around for still-useful items being discarded or auctioned off. Homer leaves the house less and less often. What comes in the front door rarely goes out again. Only people leave. Langley’s brief half-hearted efforts to find a wife dwindle and are forgotten. Servants are let go, or die, or are taken away by the authorities. Some very interesting visitors pass through, including Vincent the Gangster, and a clutch of hippies. The dining room is occupied by a Model T Ford, Langley’s failed experiment to generate his own electricity. First the phone, then the electricity, and finally the water service are shut off for lack of payment. Something can be heard scuttling around in the ceiling. We know no good can come of it all. Yet reading the saga from Homer’s perspective, none of this feels quite as bizarre as we know it to be. And for the participants, it isn’t tragic, it’s just life. As Homer tells a friend at one point, “You have looked in on this house. You know there is just no other way for us to be. You know it is who we are.” Now we know too.
Review written in 2009 ( )
  laytonwoman3rd | Nov 26, 2015 |
I have a bias in favor of anything written by Doctorow. He brings intriguing historical events powerfully to life in his fiction. And he has done that in Homer & Langley.

Before I launch into specific praise of this book, however, I need to give a couple of caveats. About 1/3 to 1/2 way through, I had to work hard to resist hearing "Run, Forest, Run" in my brain. Like the movie Forest Gump, this book spans the USA 20th century plus and highlights important events as well as changes, both technological and cultural, through their interactions with the lives of the characters.

My second caveat is about the two main characters, or perhaps more precisely about one of them. Langley is the war-damaged brother who returns home a bit crazy, and then sinks further & further into his own special brand of eccentricity. And that eccentricity includes hoarding. And hoarding, when it appears in fiction, always distracts me and makes me feel that I should stop reading and immediately go clean out the decades of accumulations in my own closets and shelves. But perhaps that is a personal problem that might not affect other readers in the same way.

But this is an elegant story. I loved Homer, and by extension his brother Langley. Homer has an early-20th century manner of speaking that he never loses, perhaps in part because he lost his sight as a teenager. The story of America is told through the life and narration of Homer and his perceptions, as experienced from the Fifth Avenue home he shares throughout his life with his brother. I won't spoil the ending, but a box of tissues might be in order.

( )
  Phyllis.Mann | Jul 13, 2015 |
If Homer and Langley were still alive they would be the subject of reality TV shows like Hoarders. They were certainly a pair of odd ducks.

Homer and Langley Collyer were eccentrics who lived in a brownstone on 5th Avenue across the street from Central Park. After going blind Homer kept to the house and Langley stayed to look after him. Eventually Homer stopped going out and Langley only went out late at night. Both men died in the house surrounded by tons of garbage. Doctorow has based his book loosely on these facts and written it as if Homer was speaking. Each slide away from "normalcy" is explained by Homer as justified in the circumstances but it is obvious that both men were delusional at best and psychotic at worst. ( )
  gypsysmom | Jun 14, 2015 |
HOMER & LANGLEY, by E.L. Doctorow.
Haven't read Doctorow since RAGTIME, and don't remember much about that, as it was years ago. I would classify this book as more of an "entertainment," than really serious fiction. A fictionalized version of two very real people, the Collyer brothers, Doctorow chooses to extend their lives (they were found dead in their house in 1947) by fifty-plus years, creating a kind of fantasy, as well as a commentary on the craziness and crassness of the twentieth century. He links the brothers up with some major events as well as all the wars and upheavals, a la FOREST GUMP. Sorry, Mr. Doctorow, but I liked Groom's book a lot more. I cared about Forest. Gump's story was funnier and more moving. These brothers? Not so much. Like I said, 'entertaining,' but in the end? Meh. ( )
  TimBazzett | Apr 3, 2015 |
brothers, New York City, blindness, historical fiction, hoarding ( )
  rowen1 | Dec 22, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 110 (next | show all)
This is Forrest Gump by way of Ecclesiastes, a sustained lament over the futility of human endeavor.
added by Shortride | editEsquire, Benjamin Alsup (Sep 30, 2009)
The achievement of Doctorow’s masterly, compassionate double portrait is that it succeeds for 200 pages in suspending the snigger, elevating the Collyers beyond caricature and turning them into creatures of their times instead of figures of fun.
I’m not sure “Homer & Langley” will stand as one of Doctorow’s best, but the story of two brothers united by their imaginations and disabilities ends up being a poignant one – rats, cockroaches, and all – and the ending has striking power.
Doctorow’s biggest weakness as a storyteller is his urge to act as a docent at the New York Historical Society. The inner life he gives to Homer is desultory – apart from a few brief love affairs, Homer’s days are marked by boredom and decline. To be additionally saddled with a grandfatherly tendency to long-windedness is a trait the novel can’t recover from.
A slight, unsatisfying, Poe-like story that turns out to be a study in morbid psychology.
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To Kate Medina
First words
I am Homer, the blind brother.
Jsem Homer, ten slepý bratr.
...umírají neviňátka, nikoli ti, kdo se už narodili silní, protože bez iluzí. (s. 18)
... byl dost mladý, aby věřil, že svět k němu bude fér, jen když on bude tvrdě pracovat, ze všech sil se snažit a dávat do hudby celé srdce. (s. 49)
Jedna z JoJových mizerně zpívaných písní mě zaujala. Začínala "Dobrejtro, lžičko". Debatovali sme o tom s Langleym. On si myslel, že vypovídá o osamělosti vypravěče, který ironicky oslovuje svůj příbor. Nesouhlasil jsem. Já jsem tvrdil, že mluvčí hovoří na svou pravděpodobně drobnou milenku, která se s ním ráno probouzí, a že lžička je prostě něžnůstka. (s. 117)
Jediná napínavá věc pro mě byla, kolik Lissiných blábolů budu muset vyslechnout cestou k nevyhnutelnému. (s. 118)
Dnes letí elektrifikovaní hudebníci, kteří si dávají existencialistická jména a přitahují rozsáhlé publikum lidí o něco mladších než oni, kteří by sami také moc rádi škubali pánví a ječeli a častovali tou uši rvoucí hudbou stadiony plné idiotů. (s. 122)
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Book description
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.

[retrieved May 23, 2013 from Amazon.com]
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A free imaginative rendering of the lives of New York's fabled Collyer brothers depicts Homer and Langley as recluses in their once grand Fifth Avenue mansion, facing odyssean perils as they struggle to survive the wars, political movements, and technological advances of the last century.… (more)

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