The Collyer brothers of E.L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley are loosely based on a pair of real life brothers whose eccentric lifestyle created a sensation when they were found dead in their New York City Fifth Avenue home in 1947. Like their real life counterparts, by the time of their deaths, Doctorow’s Homer and Langley Collyer had filled their once extravagant home with so many newspapers, books, magazines, and whatever else Langley decided to drag home (including the Model T that filled one room) that they could barely move around inside the home. Doctorow’s fictional brothers, however, do not meet their deaths until well into the 1970s, allowing them to witness the Korean War, the Viet Nam War and the flower children of the sixties.
Homer introduces himself in the book’s first sentence by saying, “I’m Homer, the blind brother,” and from that moment, everything is “seen” and recounted from his point-of-view. Homer is the younger brother, the one left behind with his wealthy parents when older brother Langley leaves for the battlefields of World War I France. Langley would return to the family, his health ruined by the poisonous gas he inhaled during his last fight, only to find both parents dead from the flu epidemic that had so devastated the country.
The brothers, one unable to work because of his sightlessness and the other because of the war damage to his lungs, will live together for more than 50 years as recluses in the only home they have ever known. As the years pass and the last of their domestic help leaves them, Homer and Langley venture from home less and less, Homer usually only to sit in the park across the street from the brownstone and Langley to scavenge more of the things he convinces himself might prove useful one day.
Langley, seemingly on the edge of serious mental illness, has three goals in life: pay as little to New York’s public utility companies as possible; create the ultimate newspaper, one that will tell everything its readers ever need to know in a single, one-time edition; and collect duplicates of every item that catches his fancy. Homer has his music and his brother, and he would find it difficult to survive without either. Homer and Langley may not have gotten out much but life had a way of coming to them over the years in the form of visits from gangsters, prostitutes, bill collectors, dance party customers, sixties hippies, the FBI, and even a few single women, one of whom would, for a time, become Langley’s wife.
Upon their deaths, many would see the real Homer and Langley Collyer as nothing more than obsessed junk collectors because they left little behind that would prove otherwise. Doctorow’s sympathetic characterization of the two men reminds there has to have been much more to them than that. Homer & Langley, at times, has the unfortunate feel of a Forest Gump satire but readers will find it to be an excellent character study.
Rated at: 4.0