I have probably mentioned once, twice or maybe even more, that there are some authors that can intimidate you with just their name. I have no idea why but E.L. Doctorow is one such author. I think it might be because his name makes me think of the Russian greats and I find those most daunting too. When I saw his latest novel ‘Homer & Langley’ was about two reclusive siblings who shut themselves away from the world I instantly thought ‘ooh a male Grey Gardens’ and wanted to read it. It might be a bit of a strange reason to want to read a book for but there you have it and Grey Gardens is one of my favourite ever films.
‘Homer & Langley’ is a fictional take on the very real Collyer brothers. However if like me you had never heard of them before fear not as E.L. Doctorow manages to bring them and their lives vividly to life. The brothers were born into bourgeois New York in the 1880’s. Homer the eldest went blind in his late teens, his description of which opens the book both beautifully and sadly, his younger brother Langley went off to fight in the First World War and came back a changed man from the effects of mustard gas. During Langley’s time away his parents had sadly died from Spanish flu epidemic.
“To this day I don’t like to think about their deaths. It is true that with the onset of my blindness there had been a kind of retrenchment of whatever feelings they had for me, as if an investment they had made had not paid off and they were cutting their losses. Nevertheless, nevertheless, this was the final abandonment, a trip from which they were not to return, and I was shaken.”
From the perspective of Homer we are given an insight into how the brothers ended up withdrawing from the world little by little and from looking back at their past almost letting the reader see how two men could end up surrounded by endless hoarded items (one of the rooms actually housed a car) in particular Langley’s need to collect every single paper every single day in the hope of creating ‘Collyer’s One Edition For All Time’ (which made me think of a homepage on a news website way before its time). We also get to see how society and the world in general was changing as though the brothers became reclusive they knew of people, read about or collected things from this changing world.
It is in fact one of the many wonderful things about this book that in just over 200 pages we go through decades which included both World Wars as well as Korea and Vietnam and feel the impact of them. We see how the television and motor cars, the movements in science (such as the first man on the moon) and the politics affect America. We also get to see changes in society as the brothers have phases of opening their doors to all walks of life from tea room parties, immigrants (mostly staff), gangster’s and prostitutes and the hippy movement end up sharing their dilapidated space.
Another master stroke from Doctorow was having Homer, who as I mentioned was blind, narrating the book as interestingly the description of everything is greater. We don’t just get the visual we get so much more as in order to describe everything that’s happening Homer uses memories of his sight along with all his other senses such as touch, taste and smell to build an even more vivid picture. I think in part it may also be because out of the two Homer is the brother we can empathise with, Langley comes across as a darker more mentally loose cannon and sometimes is quite dislikeable. We also get to witness how as the house deteriorates Homer becomes lost in his own familiar surroundings and how the worse things get the more he relies on a brother who can barely look after himself leading to an ending that is all the more shocking and heartbreaking because we know it was true. A modern masterpiece, I think this is a remarkable book. 9.5/10
Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:
I am struggling with this one today as I don’t think I have read a book quite like this before or any other E.L. Doctorow, can any of you tell me where to head book wise either with a book like this or another Doctorow?