Homer & Langley

By E. L. Doctorow

The Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, were famous recluses who lived in a stately brownstone on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in the first half of the twentieth century. More than just your common garden variety eccentrics, they bestowed the family name both on their shared mental disorder (“Collyer brothers syndrome” being the inability to throw anything out) as well as the firetrap they turned their house into (a “Collyer mansion” is any home overpacked with junk). Being reclusive, there isn’t a whole lot known for certain about them. What we do know suggests they were a pair of sad freaks, living a miserable, lonely life in their boarded-up, booby-trapped mansion, surrounded, quite literally, by tons of garbage. Homer was crippled and blind in his final years, leaving Langley to forage meals from the scraps of rotten food tossed in dumpsters. They died within days of each other – Langley crushed under bales of newspapers, his wheelchair-bound brother starving to death shortly thereafter.

One can understand the fascination such a story would have for E. L. Doctorow, an author obsessed in his own way with American history, and in particular that of his native New York City. What is puzzling is why Doctorow took such a dark, grotesque tale and then tidied it up to the extent he has.

The basic facts of the story have been changed in a number of minor ways, most of them having to do with chronology. For example, while the real Homer was four years older than Langley and went blind in his 50s, Doctorow makes him two years younger and has him lose his sight as an adolescent. More provocatively, the time frame is stretched far beyond not only the historical record but even what seems possible. Both brothers died in 1947, but here they seem to be going strong at least up until the 1980s.

This twisting and bending of historical time is intentional, since Homer and Langley are emphatically the kind of people for whom time has no meaning. Langley, the more philosophical brother, counts and files news stories as part of a plan to create a universal, eternal, “Platonic” newspaper – one that “could be read forevermore as sufficient to any day thereof.” Since history merely consists of the same things happening over and over, we only need one such newspaper to give us “the Universal Forms of which any particular detail would only be an example.” For Homer, time comes to seem “a drift, a shifting of sand.” Unable to remember when the events of his life happened, or in what order, he is forced to conclude that either his mind is turning in on itself or that he has finally established “the prophecy of Langley’s timeless newspaper.”

Such a premise might have been turned into a transgressive bit of magic history, especially in these hands, but for some reason Doctorow chooses to play it safe. Instead of being misanthropic, paranoid recluses, the brothers are genial libertarians in the American grain, standing up for all kinds of virtuous causes and practically keeping an open house on Fifth Avenue. They run a jazz club and dance parties during Prohibition. When World War Two breaks out they take in a persecuted Japanese-American couple. In the 1960s they run a hostel for hippies, enjoying all the weed and free love.

Why Doctorow stripped Homer and Langley of all the givens that might have made them interesting as characters in order to turn them into a rather bland pair of good-natured oddfellows is hard to fathom. As social commentary the book only offers historical fiction’s comfortable gaze through the rear-view mirror at a twentieth century whose winners and losers, angels and demons, have all been determined. It seems that the main lesson – the Universal Form that is expressed through a series of particular events – has to do with the effects at home of American imperialism. And there’s no denying this is is an important theme, especially today. One only wonders why Doctorow chose the story of the historically quarantined Collyer brothers – a story he had to transform so much as to make it nearly unrecognizable – to be its vehicle.

Review first published online June 7, 2010.

%d bloggers like this: