Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Homer and Langley by E. L. Doctorow

Homer and Langley by E. L. Doctorow
Read by Arthur Morey*
Published September 2009 by Random House Publishing
Source: my audiobook copy purchased at my library book sale

Publisher's Summary:
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...

My Thoughts:
I don't recall if I first heard of the Collyer brothers when this book came out or if I knew about them first which made this book appeal. Well, that and the fact that the book is written by Doctorow, the man who wrote one of my all-time favorite books, Ragtime. Doctorow is known for dropping his fictional characters into historical events among historical figures. Here he's turned the tables a bit. In Homer and Langley, Homer and Langley Collyer are the historical figures.

Langley Collyer, top center. 
Homer and Langley Collyer were born into wealth and both had college degrees and successful careers. But when Homer went blind, Langley quit his job to care for his older brother. When their divorced parents both died, the brothers combined the two households into one brownstone. Curiosity, paranoia, a changing Harlem neighborhood, and Langley's collecting of newspapers for the eventuality of the return of Homer's sight all snowballed into a home that was crammed so full the when police tried to enter the home in 1947, they were forced to empty the house as they went.

In Doctorow's hands, the brothers Collyer are given a full life before their reclusive years and another 30 years of life, allowing the events of the world to come to their door. Doctorow has the brothers befriend a band of hippies and allow them to stay in the house for weeks; he gives them an early interaction with a mobster who later becomes head of one of the five families and uses their home as a refuge after an attempt has been made on his life; and Doctorow has Homer befriend in a park a journalist to whom he will later write the story of his and Langley's lives.

The Collyer brothers became, even in their lifetimes, objects of ridicule, not just for the way they lived but also for the way they died. Doctorow makes them human. These men did not just one day decide that they wanted to live the way they ended up living. It's not that they couldn't have afforded to live well; they had plenty of money. But life was, for Homer and Langley, as it is for all of us, an accumulation of experiences. Langley,  as Doctorow sees him, was a genius who was fiercely protective of his brother; Homer a man who didn't always understand or agree with his brother's thinking but who always defended it.

As I've been journeying through the 40 Bags In 40 Days, it's become easier and easier for me to understand how someone might end up living as the Collyer brothers did. You begin keeping things just in case you find a use for them, you keep things to use read later, you just don't get around to putting things right. Before long, it becomes so overwhelming it becomes impossible to tackle. Add on to that, the mental illness that so many, like Langley Collyer, suffer and it becomes a recipe for the kind of disaster that happened to the Collyer brothers.

E. L. Doctorow
The New York Times reviewer, in 2009, raved about Homer and Langley. While I appreciate the way Doctorow humanized the brothers and was fascinated with his take on how someone might become what today we call a hoarder, I didn't love the book. I think I would have enjoyed the story more had it hewed to the actual facts of the brothers lives rather than tweaking them to work as a way to look at world events. But perhaps keeping that wider window open throughout the book helped readers to really feel the brothers lives growing smaller and smaller as they near the end of their lives. By the last of the book, the feeling is absolutely claustrophobic.

*Imagine my surprise to pop the first disc of this book in and discover that it was also being read by Arthur Morey, who also read the last book I had listened to. I believe I enjoyed his reading even more in this book.


  1. This sounds interesting. I'm unfamiliar with the brothers but they fascinating in their own right and I like that Doctorow humanized them so nicely. I'm fascinated by their house as well. The concept of hoarding always fascinates me. This sounds like a great read!

    1. I recommend it on audio if you decide to read it. I'm not sure it would have been as interesting to stick with except for Morey's reading.