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.


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.

16 Responses

  1. Oh, how stifling! I’m not sure if I could bring myself to read it, but I’m glad you’re still thinking about it.

  2. The subject sounds so fascinating, too bad the book’s dull.

  3. I’m a fan of the show Hoarders also. Like you I find it a bit uncomfortable to watch but can’t seem to resist at the same time. I suppose it makes me feel better about my minor issues with collecting things! I’ve never heard of this book so thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  4. I can’t say I always watch the Hoarders show, but when I happen upon it, I have to stop and gape. It is like staring at a traffic accident…you HAVE to look even though it is horrifying. I have had this book on my wish list ever since I saw it mentioned on an indie bookstore blog.

  5. I have heard disappointing things about this book. It seems as though it should be a very interesting story, but somehow everyone who has read it feels it fell flat. I think I will skip it. Too bad though, because it’s probably the only story I have ever known to feaute hoarding as a theme. Great review!

  6. Your review cracked me up! It’s hard to imagine being unable to get around the house because of all the piles of junk everywhere. It’s funny in a sick way.

  7. This book sounds really good, but I’ve read other reviews that say it drags. That’s unfortunate. I received an unexpected copy, and I’ve sort of put off reading it. I’ll give it a try at some point, though. I’ve never seen the show “Hoarders” but one of the clients I write for at work cleans the houses of these people so I’ve read extensively on the subject. It’s so sad.

  8. Very interesting! Although I DO NOT like it when authors change major aspects of historical characters lives. I can see taking liberties but changing the dates through Woodstock?? I think that would piss me off.

    I’m not too much of a pack rat. I’ve gone through many bouts of purging and surprisingly, you don’t really miss the stuff. It’s also helped when we moved to a small one bedroom in NYC because you really can’t horde. Although I do see these guys’ conundrum. Sometimes I’m walking to the subway on trash days and see the coolest furniture or whatever and wish I could cart it home and fix it up. I’ve actually gotten a brand new picture frame thing from our basement’s trash area. It’s not damaged at all. They just didn’t want it. I find this happens a lot in the city because we just don’t have the room for things we don’t want, it’s too much of a pain to figure how/when to cart it to a thrift store, and we have no garage for a garage sale.

    Wow. That was a long blab. Thanks for the review! I could see how that book would make you think.

  9. This is one of those books that has all kinds of possibilities and I have not read any of Doctorow’s other work. Maybe I will start with this one. I can totally relate to hoarders…my husband likes to hoard things and my grandmother was a consummate hoarder. I hope that I’m not like her, but judging from my book stacks, I might be…a hoarder of books.

  10. Sounds interesting, but not necessarily in a good way.

    I got the book in the mail the other day! Thank you sooo much! 🙂 : ) : )

  11. I’ve always been accused of being a packrat but I’m a neat packrat. That’s just crazy! I mean, I’ve watched Clean House a few times and it’s creeped me out. Not sure I could read this even though it would probably inspire me to go clean the house from top to bottom. I wonder if this house is still standing? With that much trash it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that they just bulldozed it under.

  12. The idea of looking into the lives of these guys seems interesting but it probably wasn’t enough to stand on it’s own. After all, there couldn’t have been much actually happening in their lives. I’m a little disappointed in Doctorow taking so many liberties with the story.

  13. I’ve seen the show a couple of times and it makes me want to get up off the couch and go clean out a closet!

  14. I’m still thinking about this book too. I liked it, but expected more from it for some reason…what? i’m not sure.

  15. I just felt like it could have been a much better book than it ended up being. Like you I was ready for it to end.

  16. Great review! I was ready for the book to end like you and others, but I did really LOVE the liberties Doctorow took to change some of the important facts of the characters. Hearing this from the blind brother’s tale was more interesting and having Doctorow make Homer blind from an earlier age than in real life also made you wonder/consider how dependent the brothers had become on eachother – could they have even survived w/out eachother? Also – if one of the brothers had died much sooner than the other, before the hoarding had gotten so bad would this have ended up this way? While the book did seem to drag on at certain points I found myself content looking back on it. It was interesting overall. 🙂

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