E. L. Doctorow seems to relish history in a way that makes it difficult to call him a writer of historical fiction. Ragtime, The March, World’s Fair and on and on, take place in the past but the stories take place slightly off stage, historical figures and events whirling through but the real story taking place inside somewhere. In Homer and Langley he takes on the Collyer brothers, fabled New York hoarders, recluses, figures of fun-house curiosity, who died tragically in their own mess in the early ‘40’s.
Doctorow’s narrative, told first-person and without chapters (only pauses) by Homer, the “blind brother” takes place in the teens to early ‘80’s of the 20th Century. In his riveting, elegantly simple and dead-on prose, the brothers become human, sympathetic and achingly real. To many of us who blink at the horror theater of reality TV, the hoarding phenomenon is presented in exploitative shocking terms akin to the worst grocery store tabloid headlines. Here we watch the genesis of the phenomenon in human and understandable terms. Homer tells of his teenage onset blindness, his ready adaptation to it, his parents death in the influenza epidemic of 1918 while Langley served in the U.S. Army in the Great War, and Langley’s return as victim of a mustard gas attack at the War’s end. Langley is forever scarred by what he sees as the futility of any war (and they will witness many of them) and of his “sacrifice”. Though through the decades the world passes through their lives and even through their house, their story is one of increasing isolation and disgust at the world as it is. Langley’s slowly developing madness, seen through prism of his loving and dependent brother, is explicable. The devotion of the brothers to each other plays out in myriad ways through the decades. Each project Langley undertakes is a need for making sense of their world in ways that are logical if not agreeable.
This is not heavy psychological fiction. The brothers interaction with the world, from their high-stepping wild clubbing days in the Roaring ‘20’s (complete with mob boss recovering from a bullet on their kitchen table) to their own popular tea dances for not-needed extra cash during the Great Depression, presents two people engaged in the world but slowly and increasingly not of it. The hippie ‘60’s camp out in their crowded, junk-strewn newspaper-filled 5th Avenue home is but the final expression of how they try and strangely succeed, in understanding the world on their own terms.
It would be hard to name a more sympathetic narrator than Homer. A talented and well educated musician, he understands his blindness, accepts his limitations, but always adapts. When in old age his hearing slowly goes, he’s earned enough credit with us for his fear and acceptance again to be anything but astonishing.
The brothers’ devotion ends in tragedy. But our hearts are so engaged by them that their freakishness is humanized to the point of complete sympathy. Doctorow has managed to turn what New York saw as a sideshow into a story of lives boldly lived under the most difficult circumstances.