Homer and Langley Collyer are brothers–the one blind and deeply intuitive, the other damaged into madness, or perhaps greatness, by mustard gas in the Great War. They live as recluses in their once grand Fifth Avenue mansion, scavenging the city streets for things they think they can use, hoarding the daily newspapers as research for Langley’s proposed dateless newspaper whose reportage will be as prophecy. Yet the epic events of the century play out in the lives of the two brothers–wars, political movements, technological advances–and even though they want nothing more than to shut out the world, history seems to pass through their cluttered house in the persons of immigrants, prostitutes, society women, government agents, gangsters, jazz musicians . . . and their housebound lives are fraught with odyssean peril as they struggle to survive and create meaning for themselves.
Brilliantly conceived, gorgeously written, this mesmerizing narrative, a free imaginative rendering of the lives of New York’s fabled Collyer brothers, is a family story with the resonance of myth, an astonishing masterwork unlike any that have come before from this great writer.
This novel was released in 2009, but just this past fall, the trade paperback edition became available. I am aware that Homer & Langley received very mixed reviews, with readers feeling either middling about it or loving it. Like any good historical novelist pushing the limits of his craft, Doctorow takes chances. The author’s treatment of the history was a negative for some critics, while others felt the narrator was less than engaging and the imagined historical details were unconvincing, while others still, including the New York Times, opined that Doctorow “never succeeds in making the brothers’ transition from mild eccentricity to out-and-out madness understandable to the reader.” Yet even the detractors gave a nod to the author’s stylistic prose.
My reaction to this novel was very strong and I felt it deeply – with my senses and my emotions. Repeatedly I found myself imagining Homer’s ability to take in so much about the world after he lost his sight. The intuition he possessed coupled with other senses being heightened made for a very evolved character with insights that helped filled in the holes of his life. Langley made for an equally interesting, though not as fully fleshed character. Because we are receiving the story from Homer, and though their relationship was unusually strong, we are never fully privy to the action inside Langley’s brain. I do wonder, however, if Langley would be self-aware enough as to categorize his behaviours as well as he categorized his newspaper articles? To me, it is a beautifully imagined brotherhood Doctorow has created; a story inspired by how Homer and Langley lived, rather than sensationalizing how they died. Certainly, many liberties were taken by Doctorow in creating this story and it seems to be this aspect of the book that has the largest share of naysayers debating the label of historical fiction being applied to Doctorow’s book. The book spans nearly 70 years, from just before WWI to the years after the Vietnam War. In this regard, many eras are referenced through the brothers lives. But, it is not so much a recounting of the unusual story of the Collyer brothers as a journey inside that story. Call it a meditation, and a metaphor.
Doctorow’s novel is absolutely beautiful, to me, and I am amazed that he could accomplish so much in such a short (the edition I have is only 208 pages) book. “I’m Homer, the blind brother.” is the very first line of Homer & Langley. We know immediately, then, this story will offer a very unique perspective, while signalling, also, that the pages within contain not just a usual story. I feel the eras covered – WWI, the Great Depression, prohibition, the Korean War, The assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr., the hippie movement and the Vietnam War – allowed the book to read, almost like a road trip novel with Homer and Langley benefiting from social interactions, without leaving their home. That Doctorow moved the setting of his novel from the actual home in Harlem, to an imagined Manhattan brownstone on Fifth Avenue, directly across from Central Park, likely allowed for more artistic license with the outside world coming into the brothers’ home so they could have first-hand experiences while being nearly complete shut-ins.
There is no doubt many found, and continue to find the real story of the Collyer brothers sad. If you look at photos taken from inside their home, you wonder how it is even possible they lived among all of the detritus. What Doctorow has done so well, then, is ask us to look at the tale through a different lens and dig within ourselves and extend compassion to two brothers who were likely never really understood and continue, in this world of media-provoked hoarders interest, to be viewed as bizarre and reprehensible. In Doctorow’s view, Homer & Langley are sensitive, highly-intelligent, lonely men, trying to find their purpose in the world. I think this is something we can all relate to and appreciate.