Homer & Langley, by E. L. Doctorow

by Robert A. Parker

I bought this 2009 novel because I have long respected Doctorow. But I hesitated at picking it up to read, because I was not drawn to its story of two elderly recluse trapped in their trash-filled Fifth Avenue mansion, which is based on an actual event. What finally prompted me to read it was Doctorow death just a few weeks ago.

As soon as I entered the world of Homer and Langley Collyer, however, I became entranced. For it was a world of teenage brothers, one of whom, the narrator Homer, is slowly losing his sight and is in the process of adjusting to his new life. In other words, this tale has a voice, and one is quickly involved in this strange world.

For a while, this approach works, as these two young men become mutually supportive, especially when they lose their parents to the flu after World War I. Homer even has a brief romance. But at a certain point, their relationship no longer advances. Instead, interest comes from the various people who enter their home, the brothers’ relationship with the city and its services, and the alienation Homer and Langley have toward all those who violate their sanctuary.

We also learn that Langley is beginning to collect newspapers and other materials and is storing them away in their mansion. But I was never convinced about his reasons for doing this. It is not enough that he suffered brain damage from mustard gas in World War I. Nor is it that he has conceived a Theory of Replacements, meaning, for example, that children replace their parents. Most of all, it is not clear how this has led to his idea of replacing newspapers by creating a dateless newspaper comprising all of history. How this newspaper works never becomes clear to me, much less convincing. In addition, Homer accepts all of his brother’s decisions rather than challenges him. Mainly, he does not try to stop Langley’s impractical hoarding of other useless items, like placing a Model T in the dining room.

Nor does Homer, now blind, challenge his brother’s continual duels with the city and its services. The emphasis in every case is on the situation of these two men besieged in this Fifth Avenue mansion. Whereas, the richness of this novel should be inside the mansion, should be in the relationship between these two men. How does Langley justify, even to himself, what he does? And why is Homer so accommodating to his brother’s idiosyncrasies?

Even so, around the half-way point, this novel changes gears. It focuses even more on what is happening in the outside world, and how the brothers recognize and/or react to those events. There is a Depression. There is warfare in Europe, Japan, and Korea. There are the Sixties protests and assassinations. There is a landing on the moon. There is a city blackout. All of which recalls recent comments in Doctorow’s obituary that all his novels together comprise a century and a half of American history. This work certainly attempts to capture much of the 20th century.

Yes, there are occasional dramatic moments, such as when a young piano student whom Homer liked leaves and becomes a nun, and the brothers learn much later that she has been raped and killed in South America (such as actual nuns were). And also, when a gangster family whom the brothers had met earlier now seek to hide in their mansion after their leader is wounded.

Doctorow winds up his novel with Homer turning deaf, and so losing his ability to play and appreciate music, whereupon he is persuaded to become a writer, and to tell the story, via Braille, of the Collyer brothers, the story we are now reading. Sorry, this is too much a contrivance by the author to round off and conclude his novel. Also unconvincing to me is the clutter inside the mansion, the narrow aisles between the piles of newspapers, boxes, and debris. It is continually described, but I never felt the supposed claustrophobia. I never felt how these brothers had entrapped themselves in their own folly.

To sum up, after a promising beginning, this becomes a disappointing novel. It is too much about the surface of these brothers’ lives, whereas it should tell the internal story of why these brothers became recluses, the debates and disagreements they would have had, and the drama of how they antagonized each other rather than how the outside world antagonized them. It relies too much on known fact, on the outside world, and not enough on the author’s imagination, on what was happening inside these brothers’ minds.

This is the last of Doctorow’s novels I shall read. Unfortunately, it is not one of his better ones. (August, 2015)

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