Book review

Homer & Langley: A Novel (E. L. Doctorow)

Collyer brothers brownstone, 1947 (Ed Jackson/New York Daily News)

Historically, factually, Homer and Langley Collyer were born in the 1880s and died in the 1940s. In between those dates, they brought over one hundred tons of junk into their Fifth Avenue home: pianos, newspapers, clocks, books, bicycles, fabric, and much more. It all eventually, and literally, killed them. Their bodies were found amidst the heaps of stuff: Homer, the blind brother, dead of starvation; Langley some ten feet away, crushed under one of the booby traps he’d devised against intruders as he was bringing food to his brother.

In Homer & Langley, the creepy fascination of the Collyer brothers is conjoined with the masterly elegance of E. L. Doctorow’s prose to yield a thought-provoking American epic. As he did in Ragtime, Doctorow reels off a history writ simultaneously grand and miniature, concise and panoramic. And suffused throughout with sadness.

The story is narrated by Homer. (Of course.) What he gives us is a kaleidoscope of blurry images comprising most of the American twentieth century. Immigrants, bootleggers, jazz musicians, and hippies come to the Collyers’ home. An increasingly importuning world’s emissaries bring news and evidence of Depression, Holocaust, and moon landing. And through it all, Langley collects. Notes Homer, subsequent to Langley’s acquisition of army surplus materials following the end of World War II:

It was as if the times blew through our house like a wind, and these were the things deposited here by the winds of war. So along with everything else, all these helmets, boots, etc. ended up now where they had been deposited, artifacts of some enthusiasms of the past, almost as if we were a museum, though with our riches as yet uncatalogued, the curating still to come.

The brothers’ increasingly peculiar existence of floating alongside the time-stream rather than within it stems from the century’s first great shocks: the almost concurrent horrors of the flu pandemic and World War I. The toll these took on the house of Collyer was devastating: Mother and Father both died swiftly while Langley was away at war, leaving a recently blinded Homer alone:

It is true that with the onset of my blindness there had been a kind of retrenchment of whatever feelings they had for me, as if an investment they had made had not paid off and they were cutting their losses. Nevertheless, nevertheless, this was the final abandonment, a trip from which they were not to return, and I was shaken.

The news comes that Langley is missing:

I asked myself if it was possible for my entire family to be wiped out in the space of a month or two. I decided it was not possible. It was not like my brother to desert me. There was something about Langley’s worldview, firmly in place at birth, though perhaps polished to a shine at Columbia College, that would confer godlike immunity to such an ordinary fate as death in a war: it was innocents who died, not those born with the strength of no illusions.

The Langley who comes home has been scarred and ravaged by mustard gas and the hell of trench warfare. His arrival tears down the last vestiges of normal living—already tenuous under Homer’s regime—in the Fifth Avenue house. Discipline and order, reason and purpose, are gone.

So there were undercurrents of dissatisfaction coming from all directions—we were a household already far removed from that of my parents, of whose orderly administration and regally stolid ways I found myself newly appreciative. But not having the faintest idea of how to deal with any of this emotional disorder, I made a mental distinction between anarchy and evolutionary change. The one was the world falling to pieces, the other was only the inevitable creep of time, which was what we had now in this house, I decided, the turning over of the seconds and minutes of life to show its ever new guise.

In place of normality, Langley substitutes things. In place of illusions, he posits Theories, primarily his Theory of Replacement, which maintains that all things are forever the same, constantly replaced, never improved, thus instigating Langley’s life’s project—to create a forever newspaper that can be read “forevermore as sufficient to any day thereof”:

What if something comes along that has no precedent, I said. Where will your newspaper be then?

Like what?

Like Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Like that Einstein fellow’s Theory of Relativity.

Well you could say these theories replace the old ones. Albert Einstein replaces Newton, and Darwin replaces Genesis. Not that anything has been made clearer. But I’ll give you that both theories are unprecedented. What of it? What do we really know? If every question is answered so that we know everything there is to know about life and the universe, what then? What will be different? It will be like knowing how a combustion engine works. That’s all. The darkness will be there still.

It is not hard to see a parallel between the dysfunction of the Collyers’ existence (Doctorow has them live into the 1970s) and the trajectory of the twentieth century. Late in the book, Homer clarifies this, with dry humor:

It certainly didn’t help us in our relations with the neighbors and contretemps with the city bureaucracies that all of New York at this time was experiencing a deterioration in the civil order: municipal services breaking down—uncollected garbage, graffitied subway cars—street crimes rising, drug addicts abounding. I understood too that our professional sports teams were doing badly in the standings.

Life in the Collyer home becomes increasingly cramped and sad as Langley wages war on society, and they ultimately and resolutely close their shutters to the world. No utilities, no visitors, just mountains of newspapers and the detritus of forgotten passions, passing fads, past splendors. Even as Langley continues to amass new collections, Homer experiences yet another staggering loss. But to the end, the brothers genuinely and deeply love one another, and care for one another, sounding a grace note of hope in the midst of derangement.

In all, a dazzling book.

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