Review: Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow

homer-and-langleyjpg-cda43efd81e324e5_smallHomer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow is a work of fiction and a first person narrative about two real life men, the eccentric Collyer brothers of New York, who were killed by their own filth and clutter in their home in 1947.

I’m a fan of the show Hoarders on A & E.  The compulsion to accumulate and never get rid of anything is weirdly fascinating to me.  Kind of like a train wreck; it’s horrific but you can’t turn away.  My husband is a packrat.  Nothing to this extent, but it’s still annoying.  He has business cards from every person he’s ever met, going back  20+ years.  Old sweatshirts from high school clog his closet.  He won’t let me throw them out.  But I (sort of) understand that he keeps these things for sentimental reasons. At least we don’t have stacks of newspapers to the ceiling, rotting food, musical instruments, baby carriages, 6 pianos and a Model T littering our home.

180px-Collyer1aThese guys were the original hoarders.  They had normal childhoods, but then Langley went off to war, Homer lost his eyesight, and their parents died of influenza.  Langley came back a changed man, having been exposed to mustard gas.  It twisted his brain, damaging his mind and spirit.

Of the two men, Langley Collyer was the accumulator of stuff.  He would find ‘useful’ things on the curb meant for the garbage collector and bring them home.  He also needed to protect his stuff from possible intruders by setting up booby traps.  He shuttered the windows in their Manhattan brownstone overlooking Central Park so that no one would be able to see in and covet their valuables.

Homer, being blind, had no choice but to depend on Langley.  At first he could easily manuever the rooms and halls of their home, but as the home filled up with treasures, and the rooms turned into mazes, he couldn’t manage as well.  In the end they had to tunnel through all the crap to get from one room to another.

180px-Collyer_03

Langley Collyer - NOT a neat freak!

Langley stopped paying the bills, because he couldn’t be bothered with them even though they had plenty of money, and before long they were in danger of losing their house.  The utilities were turned off and the wolves were at the door.  Langley read legal books in order to delay the inevitable, to fight back and defend himself.  Finally, at the very last possible moment, he wrote a check and famously paid off the entire mortgage in one fell swoop.

The author took significant liberties with the stories of Homer and Langley Collyer, even changing the years they were alive.  In reality they died under more than 300 tons of trash in their homes in 1947, but in the book, they lived thru the Woodstock era.  It seems Doctorow did this so that he could use their lives as a framework to highlight major events in history.  He also created a scenario that never happened to explain the brothers hoarding behaviors.  He made Homer a pianist, when in truth it was Langley.  And he made the onset of Homer’s blindness happen in his teens, decades earlier than it actually happened- probably a plot device to make Homer more dependent on Langley.

The fact that the book was narrated by the blind brother made for a very introspective story.  Their fictional lives were long and took them through Prohibition, the Depression, the Cold War, and the hippie era, meeting eccentric characters but not forming many attachments.  They thought of the household help as family but when they leave (or die) it is just Homer and Langley and all their junk.  Day after day, year after year, nothing much happens.

When Homer’s hearing starts to go towards the end of his life, he has only his memories and his consciousness left, and he becomes trapped in his body as well as his home.  There is a claustrophobic feeling so stifling at this point that I could not wait for the book to end. I imagine Homer felt that way in life too, a feeling of ‘let’s just get this over with.’

Homer and Langley is an interesting study of the inner lives of these oddball brothers and their tragic demise, but I found it somewhat dull and plodding.  Yet, even several weeks after finishing the book, I’m still thinking about it.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 84 other followers