New York City has a long history of unique characters gracing its streets and brownstones. Some even become the basis of local folklore while they are still alive. This was the situation for Homer and Langley Collyer in the 1930s. For once, the truth was far stranger than the fiction devised about them.
The two adult brothers lived as recluses in their 5th Avenue home. Homer became blind and was taken care of by Langley's unique medial procedures. They had shutters installed on all the windows and Langley only left the home when necessary to acquire supplies. The city systematically shut down their water, electrical, telephone, and gas supplies for not paying their bills. They began to make headline news when Langley took to fighting with bill collectors, lawyers, and public authority figures over a variety of issues. The brothers took to fashioning their own clothing and neither one held a job.
The rumors suggested the house was bolted and shuttered to protect the millions in cash, gold, jewels, and other precious materials that filled the house from floor to ceiling, a measure devised because they did not trust banks.
The truth is seemingly less believable than that. The house was filled, floor to ceiling, with garbage. Giant stacks of newspapers created a labyrinth throughout the house. A working full-sized Model T Ford filled one room, while the rest of the house was filled with scraps of machinery left over from Langley's inventing. Langley fashioned booby traps out of everything he could to protect the family. In 1947, Langley was crushed by a stack of newspaper while bringing food to Homer; Homer starved to death a few days later. Homer was found relatively quickly, but Langley wasn't discovered until weeks later. It took years to remove all of the garbage from their home.
The Collyer brothers are no strangers to the world of contemporary fiction. Everything and everyone from The Honeymooners to Stephen King have used their story as inspiration for a gag, a scene, or an entire novel. E.L. Doctorow's Homer & Langley is the latest attempt to capture the intrigue created by the brothers.
Doctorow sets his novel as one about writing and observing, not experiencing, life. Homer, changed to be blind since early childhood, sits down at a table filled with Braille typewriters to compose the life story of him and his brother. Langley, changed to the older brother to justify his protective nature, is attempting to compile a single newspaper for the rest of time. The paper would always be accurate because he believes that all of human nature - every life, every choice, every event, every philosophy - is part of a cosmic pattern that we cannot escape from.
Both brothers have love interests that can never work out. Both face tremendous loss in the death and relocation of family, friends, and workers. Both distrust, then fear, the outside world, seemingly confirmed after a brutal incident with the police, an attempted robbery, and the summertime soundtrack of children throwing rocks at their windows.
Homer & Langley has an appealing dream-like quality that masks the rather episodic nature of the novel very well. The wisest decision Doctorow made was to extend the life of the Collyer brothers by 30 years. As their lives disintegrate day by day, Langley's suspicions are seeming confirmed as America enters war after war, the people turn against their politicians time and again, social movements rise and fall, and the brothers keep themselves separated from society.
The last section of the novel perhaps seems a bit too slow, as if Doctorow had to add "x" amount of words after fully editing the book to meet a minimum page requirement by Random House. It is only a slight disappointment after the beautifully psychological prose that filled the novel before. The obvious ending to the narrative, only obvious because of the facts of the case, is rendered with startling realism and nuance, as if Homer finally realizes what his life has become.
Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow could easily be a quick read, but it would be a disservice to a unique and well-planned novel to dash to the last page. This interpretation of the Collyer brothers is not about sensational headlines or their shocking lifestyle, but about how individual lifestyles can become so commonplace that the people living them are no longer able to tell if they have a problem.