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Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

Pub Date:

 

Homer & Langley
E.L. Doctorow

Random House
9-29-09
Hardcover/224 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4000-6494-6
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". . .a powerful book with vulnerable and tender characters."

After reading E.L. Doctorow’s novel, Homer & Langley, you will mourn the two brothers—hoarding recluses in a Fifth Avenue New York City mansion. The characters are vivid “principled separatists” who struggle to live by their own rules.

This fictional tale is based on the true life drama of Homer and Langley Collyer who, like Doctorow’s main characters, died under 130 tons of collected debris in their home. It had become over the years a “labyrinth of hazardous pathways, full of obstructions.”

The vulnerable pair didn’t plan reclusive lives. After Langley returns from WWI with mustard gas injuries, he discovers his parents died of influenza and his brother had lost his eyesight. But the brothers venture out to nightclubs. Like their parents, they also host “tea parties” that turn into jazz sessions and dance parties.

But then Langley develops metaphysical ideas and a morbid desire to collect things. His main project is cataloging newspapers with an aim to write a “timeless newspaper.” He theorizes that all events are repetitive and that what you learn from the past can be applied to the future. For decades he collects newspapers with piles reaching the ceiling. Homer spends most of his time playing his Aeolion piano.

The story revolves around historical events, and Langley’s philosophical perspective on life. During Prohibition a wanted mobster hides out in the mansion, an American-born Japanese couple seek refuge with the brothers after Pearl Harbor and, years later, hippies crash there. Finally every bare space is occupied by with piles of tires, broken bikes, piano parts, books and tools. Langley even brings home a Model-T Ford he assembles in the middle of the dining room, hoping to use it to generate electricity.

But it’s not their living conditions that grabs the reader’s sympathy, rather it’s their astute way of seeing changes around them. They oppose war, see Americans as arrogant for hitting a golf ball on the moon and they challenge utility companies and banks by refusing to pay their bills.

This intelligently complex and tightly condensed story is told in the first person by Homer typing on a Braille typewriter. Each scene filled with tension creates an altogether powerful book with vulnerable and tender characters.

Reviewer: Kate Padilla