No 449 Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow

Homer and Langley by E L Doctorow is a moving and elegiac novel, based on the real life Collyer brothers. The Collyers were wealthy New York bachelors who lived a reclusive life together in their four-story brownstone in New York. They were compulsive hoarders of all kinds of useless items and were found dead, buried under their own junk and debris, in 1947.

Langley had been crushed by a trap he had set himself to deter intruders, while Homer, who was blind, had starved to death, possibly unaware that Langley had already died. How had two intelligent, wealthy men ended up living such a life of squalor?

Doctorow, who has long blended fact with his fiction, takes this lurid yet heart-breaking story and creates his own metaphor for life in 20th century America, choosing Homer, the blind musician, to chronicle the lives of the two brothers.

The novel opens in the late 19th century at the height of the Gilded Age as Homer recalls the trips around the world his parents would take, returning from their travels with crates of relics and curios, prefiguring the deranged collecting that would come to subsume the house. Langley goes off to fight in WW1, and returns, suffering from mustard-gas poisoning and no small amount of trauma, to find that their parents have died in quick succession, of Spanish flu.

As bachelors with money in the 1920s, they are social creatures and experience life to the full. Homer plays piano for the silent movies and the brothers drink in speakeasies and mingle with gangsters. They have inappropriate love affairs that don’t last and fall in love with women who don’t stay. During the Depression, they throw “tea dances” and during the Second World War, their servants, Japanese Americans, are sent to an internment camp.

But as their friends and staff leave, one by one, and Langley’s paranoia about money and autonomy grows, they retreat further and further from everyday life. Soon after, Langley’s obsessive stockpiling begins and the brother’s lives constrict into smaller and smaller spaces as one epochal event after another plays out like a cinematic backdrop to their shrinking lives.

Langley begins by collecting the daily newspapers, driven by a project to collate all possible news stories into one fixed and final edition which he believes will become the only newspaper anyone will need to buy again.

He would run out for all the morning papers, and in the afternoon for the evening papers, and then there were the business papers, the sex gazettes, the freak sheets, the vaudeville papers, and so on. He wanted to fix American life finally in one edition, what he called Collyer’s eternally current dateless newspaper, the only newspaper anyone would ever need.

Langley rails against the banks and utilities, refusing to pay bills until the brothers are left with no telephone, light or running water, all the while acquiring more and more stuff.

By the end of their lives, their massive house has become a labyrinth of narrow passageways and small spaces, filled with all kinds of scavenged objects, including a Model Ford T car, all waiting to be found useful, to be conferred meaning, behind their shuttered windows and bolted doors.

As Homer begins to lose his hearing, as well as his sight, his reliance on his brother is complete.

Langley and I were not the eccentric recluses of a once well-to-do family as described in the press: we had metamorphosed, we were the ghosts who haunted the house in which we had once lived. Not able to see myself or hear my own footsteps, I was coming around to the same idea.

In Homer and Langley, Doctorow seems to be trying to find a path through the Collyer’s lives, as a way to make sense of modern American life. By choosing the blind brother to narrate their story, he avoids any need to describe the interior of the Collyer’s house and instead is able to create an atmosphere of contraction as their story moves from the epic to the miniature, from a whole world to a few narrow passageways.  

The writing here is beautiful, simple yet haunting, with a sense that every detail counts, not because Homer has seen it, but because he has felt it, and felt it deeply.

There are moments when I cannot bear this unremitting consciousness. It knows only itself. The images of things are not the things in themselves. . . . My memories pale as I prevail upon them again and again. They become more and more ghostly. I fear nothing so much as losing them altogether and having only my blank endless mind to live in.

If I could go crazy, if I could will that on myself, I might not know how badly off I am, how awful is this awareness that is irremediably aware of itself. With only the touch of my brother’s hand to know that I am not alone.

When the novel ends, it ends quietly, but it is a devastating quiet, knowing as we do now, how the brothers died. Doctorow brings a sense of reverence to these chaotic and incomprehensible lives, which so mirror modern American life with its consumptive materialism, patriotic sentimentality and its historical inability to know what it truly important and what can be thrown away.

READ ON: BOOK
NUMBER READ: 297
NUMBER REMAINING: 449

The 746

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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

19 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Extraordinary story! I know what you mean about feeling confined but I’ll be adding to my list. Past peformance suggests that we’ll be well past covid restrictions by the time I get around to reading it

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  2. I’ve never heard of these brothers, or this story before and it sounds haunting. So much so, that I doubt I would find pleasure in reading it in the present circumstances, despite the writing which, I’m sure, from E.L. Doctorow will be beautiful. I never thought that current affairs would affect my reading but they have. I now want something more affirming to read, my daily newspaper feeds me enough negative stuff .
    A great review however, and come post-Covid, it will go on my list!

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  3. I’ll never forget reading this book, the squalor, the hopelessness, their relationship with each other and the oppressive sense of claustrophobia. A metaphor for America drowning in its own consumption.

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  4. I’m very lockdown wobbly at the moment and reading your review of this book made me a bit emotional – that sense of a world contracting, in their case through a twisted choice rather than imposed, makes me want to read it but not just now.

    I’ve never read any Doctorow – he’s someone I’m aware of but haven’t picked up yet. The passages you quote make me think I’ll like him, though.

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  5. What a great read, thank you so much for writing this review.
    It was very American, in that sometimes I wonder if US writers feel some obligation to write a story-that-parallels-American-history novel. But also beautifully written, in a glide-y way American writers are good at with this type of book. It’s one of those rare books where I feel happy to read most of the words because nothing is extraneous. The very brief section on Japanese internment was so tragic and rousing to anger. And getting into the heads of both brothers, with their very alarming characteristics, was sympathetically done. Homer’s inner tenderness and desire for love made him attractive at the same time as the reader realises his outside appearance must have been repulsive. It felt like a real jigsaw puzzle, like one of those Hockney pictures made up of interlocking squares. Homer was incomplete because of his eyesight, Langley was incomplete because of his mental disturbances, and together they sort of muddled by but also dragged each other down. I couldn’t put the book down because I so wanted them to outrun the disasters waiting to catch up with them.

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