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Homer & Langley by E. L. Doctorow

Homer & Langley (edition 2009)

by E. L. Doctorow (Author)

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1,6831326,406 (3.73)156
Title:Homer & Langley
Authors:E. L. Doctorow (Author)
Info:New York, NY Random House 2009
Collections:To read
Tags:Fiction, E.L. Doctorow, 2009 books, Random House books

Work details

Homer & Langley by E. L. Doctorow

  1. 20
    Kings of the Earth by Jon Clinch (GCPLreader)
    GCPLreader: another strong novel of fraternal love
  2. 00
    My Brother's Keeper by Marcia Davenport (sloreck)
    sloreck: Different take on same true story

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Showing 1-5 of 124 (next | show all)
As many will know, this is based on the true story of two eccentric, shut-in New York brothers, Homer & Langley Collyer, who became a sensation when, upon their passing, the townhouse they shared was discovered to be stuffed to the gills with detritus. Think of the event as America’s first, most famous episode of “Hoarders.”

It’s not a particularly savory story – credit Doctorow with endeavoring to transform such unpromising material into – if not a sympathetic tale, then at least an appealing picaresque. His technique might be called the “Forrest Gump Method” (keeping in mind that this was written decades before the eponymous movie): in this case, he uses items dragged posthumously from the house to suggest incidents and anecdotes that touch upon all the major world events and cultural changes that our nation endured during the brothers’ lifetimes. Thus a collection of aged pianos gives rise to a tale of how one Homer, a gifted but blind musician, comes to work at a silent film theater as an accompanist, assisted by an Irish immigrant girl who describes the scenes to him so that his music reflects the appropriate mood; a gramophone and records retrieved from the wreckage inspires the tale of tea dances functioning as a salve to a nation still raw from war; rusty bed springs give rise to a tale of prohibition gangsters on the run; a collection of abandoned Japanese figurines blossoms into the story of Japanese servants who are carted away in the middle of the night to internment camps; a rusty coronet inspires a particularly touching vignette of a Cajun cook and her gifted jazz musician son who loses his life in the second world war; and a baby carriage inspires the tale of hippies who turn the brownstone into a commune during the ‘60s.

Other items (the typewriters, the books, the human organs pickled in jars) Doctorow works into the fabric of his underlying tale, the story of two brothers – one a blind musician, the other mentally damaged by war – whose gradual retreat from the world culminates in a tragic (tragic sad AND tragic horror) end. For above all, this is a work about loneliness: specifically about people who pursue substitutes for human attachment – religion, duty, fear, social/financial security, social justice, patriotism, sexual freedom, fads, mania – at the cost of cutting themselves off from genuine, healthy affection. And the house? Under Doctorow’s hand, it becomes a symbol of the emotional and psychological decay that occur when humans isolate themselves from human interaction.

I’m not sure I would recommend this read to others. Despite Doctorow’s efforts to humanize the brothers and expand the story to encompass political and social change, knowing the ultimate outcome of the story (for me) robbed the story of a key ingredient – hope. I kept hoping the brothers would emerge from their self-inflicted isolation and rejoin the world, but I knew they never would, which lent every anecdote a fatalistic bitterness. Also, as I’ve mentioned before, there’s an almost Poe-esque horror to the final chapter that I’m still trying to shake off. But lots of critics smarter than me found this worthwhile (it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Price in 2009), so you may wish to brush my insights aside and make up your own mind. If nothing else, this story serves as a reminder of how easy it can be to inadvertently or carelessly isolate oneself, and of the potential consequences of isolation on one’s ultimate happiness, health, and sanity. ( )
  Dorritt | Jan 5, 2019 |
"[Langley] had brought home a nudist magazine that was fervent in its advocacy of radical health regimens. Not that we were to about without clothes, but that, for instance, heavy doses of vitamins A through E reinforced with herbs and certain ground nuts found only in Mongolia might not only ensure long life but even reverse pathological conditions such as cancer and blindness. So now I found at the breakfast table, beside the usual bowl of viscous oatmeal, handfuls of capsules and nuts and powdered leaves of one kind or another, which I dutifully swallowed to no appreciable affects as far as I could determine." At times humorous and at times poignant or sad, sometimes hopeful and sometimes hopeless, "Homer & Langley" is an interesting character study of two brothers - one physically limited by blindness and the other limited by cynicism and PTSD. Orphaned, the brothers form a family from the household servants, but as the servants age and die, or leave their employ, the brothers find themselves more and more isolated from the world as they retreat into a world of their own. The story reads slowly but nevertheless keeps you engaged as Doctorow weaves incredibly detailed characterizations and a perspective on life - on hopes and dreams and disappointments and small victories. I am not much of a fan of character studies but this one drew me in and kept me reading until Homer (the narrator) reaches that point which we all will share one day. ( )
  Al-G | May 15, 2018 |
I think it's time to just admit to myself that Doctorow and I are never going to hit it off.
This is about the fifth book of his I've tried to read, and an equal number abandoned from boredom with the writing style and plot. I understand why he's popular, I just don't care for it myself.
  Yaaresse | Apr 24, 2018 |
I think a good deal of the reason I got so behind in reviewing my books is my reluctance to write about this one. There was a fair amount of pressure to do so -- I got this book free as a part of a publicity giveaway in advance of publication, and they even followed up with a postcard to remind me to post a review (before I'd even read the book.) So, dutifully I moved the book to the top of my to-read pile, finished it fairly quickly, then... stalled.

I simply have no strong opinions on this book. I enjoyed it enough to read quickly, yet was almost always conscious that if this book hadn't been free, I never would have read it. Based on real life peole (which I actually didn't realize while reading it), it tells the stories of two brothers who become increasingly cut off from the world, Homer by blindness and Langley by his bitterness caused by his wartime experience. They hole up in their massive house (left to them by their parents) in New York City, interacting with outsiders only rarely (but usually very memorably), and slowly boxing themselves in with Langley's growing compulsion to collect and hoard.

Now, I have some hoarding compulsions myself, but I was never able to really connect with Langley. And while the novel said some interesting things about the value of community, they were said rather obliquely, and were never in focus. So, to the reader with no previous exposure to the Collyer brothers legend, what was the point? ( )
  greeniezona | Dec 6, 2017 |
I haven’t read Doctorow in a long time, but always enjoyed him. Like many of his books, it is a fictional takeoff on real-life events and people, in this case the reclusive Collyer brothers who turned their Manhattan brownstone into a squalid hoarders’ nest. The book is narrated by blind Homer (I would have faulted Doctorow for naming his blind character Homer, except that part is absolutely true) but Langley is the more compelling character. A World War I vet suffering from severe PTSD, Langley is the hoarder, a complete misanthrope, and dedicated to the crazy task of created one generic newspaper issue that would stand for all time. He is an oddly likeable character, even though the reader has to wonder if somewhat saner Homer would have had a better chance in life were he not in thrall to his dominant brother. ( )
  CasualFriday | Nov 28, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 124 (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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