The historical Homer and Langley Collyer were New York eccentrics who lived in a brownstone in Harlem in the first half of the 20th century. Born of a wealthy family, they never had to work, grew increasingly isolated and neurotic, turned into prodigious packrats, eventually becoming mildly famous for dying, in 1947, among 130 tons of rubbish they had amassed.
The lives of these two brothers sounds like thin matter for a 200 page novel, and it is, even in the hands of E. L. Doctorow, who for five decades has, playing with the facts, taken history and turned it into compelling and memorable fiction. His most famous novel Ragtime, but also Loon Lake, the mobster novel Billy Bathgate, and The Waterworks, which one-upped the atmospheric detective novels of Caleb Carr, are all immensely readable novels and the work of a writer who deserves to be named, along with John Updike and Philip Roth, as one of the finest of the last 50 years.
In Homer and Langley, unfortunately, Doctorow is like a great magician trying to make a monumental illusion out of a street corner shell game, just to prove that he can.
The novel is told in the voice of brother Homer, who is blind, we are meant to notice, just like the great Homeric author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and though Doctorow bends many facts to enrich his tale, the historical Homer Collyer was indeed blind. Not surprisingly, the epic reference fails to give the novel epic resonance.
Homer goes blind as a young man just before the Great War. His parents die of the Spanish flu in 1918 and, Langley being in the trenches in Europe, Homer is left at home with the servants, one of whom he takes to bed, until she proves a thief. Langley returns, mentally and physically scarred by mustard gas, and the story of the two brothers’ increasing isolation and eccentricity proceeds well into the ’70s.
Langley’s obsessive collecting begins with newspapers. He reads and clips them every day in an attempt to arrive at a single universally applicable edition of the paper:
He would run out for all the morning papers, and in the afternoon for the evening papers, and then there were the business papers, the sex gazettes, the freak sheets, the vaudeville papers, and so on. He wanted to fix American life finally in one edition, what he called Collyer’s eternally current dateless newspaper, the only newspaper anyone would ever need.
A nifty conceit, the project is never realized.
In the ’30s, the brothers open their house for “tea dances”, with jazz music provided by the son of their cook. This venture into the social sphere, soon shut down by the police, is their last. Gradually, the servants all leave or die and the brothers are left alone with their neurotic tendencies. Chief among these are Langley’s packratism and his hatred of authority in any form, which leads them to forego the payment of mortgages and utility bills.
Langley installs a Model T in the dining room and attempts to rig it up to a generator. Eventually, the power and water companies will cut the brothers off, leaving them to make do with battery-powered lanterns and cadging water from public fountains. As we pass quickly through the decades, the Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Nixon era, each provides a distant backdrop, which has little impact on the two brothers.
A few women flit through their lives. A young ward they take under wing when they are still somewhat coherent, and whom both brothers fall chastely in love with, later becomes a nun and is raped and murdered in South America. Langley is married to a shrewish woman who is quickly driven away by the noise and mess in the house. In the ’60s, a group of hippies turn the house into a communal nest and, improbably, the septuagenarian Homer is sexually consoled by Lissy, a “tremulous wisp of a girl”.
Near the end of his life, Homer, now slowly going deaf as well, is saved by a young French woman from being run over by a car. An intellectual and writer, she has sought out the Collyer brothers in order to determine, from their secrets, some hidden truth about America. In what is likely Homer’s fantasy, he has a romantic dinner with her at a hotel, followed by tearful sex.
Finally, completely deaf, Homer turns to writing this history, the effort of consciousness to do so being his sole reason for staying alive. Langley’s growing paranoia causes him to take measures inside the house that will prove fatal to both brothers.
The ending, which is historically factual, with the twist Doctorow puts on it, almost makes the journey worth it.
I hate reviews of novels that complain about what a novel isn’t — its characters don’t change enough, or the plot seems diffuse or insufficiently resolved, or it doesn’t have a compelling female (or male) character. Book reviews should take a novel on its own terms and judge only what is there. In the case of Homer and Langley, what’s there is 208 pages that drift by pleasantly, and sometimes even entertainingly, but which tell a story that is drawn so thin as to be hardly more memorable than a long newspaper article. As a tight, detailed and incident-packed novella of 50 pages — especially with its haunting ending — it might have been a stunner.