Homer & Langley – E.L. Doctorow

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.

One of the rooms in the Collyer Brothers house.

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?

25 Comments

Filed under Books of 2010, E.L. Doctorow, Little Brown Publishing, Review

25 responses to “Homer & Langley – E.L. Doctorow

  1. There is a little indie bookstore website that I follow (friends of my sister’s in St. Paul MN) who talked about this book awhile back, raving about it. So they shared your sentiments. I wrote it down not only because I trust their opinion, but have always been fascinated by hoarders, in a morbid kind of way. Maybe it makes me feel better when my house is a mess, I don’t know! 9.5 is certainly a recommendation I can’t ignore!

    • These are two spectacular hoarders. I should have recommended that no one look up the brothers on the internet before they read the book though as it would ruin the ending, unless you know it already of course.

      You must let me know the site of the indie bookstore.

  2. I have read the Waterworks, but that was some years ago and I can’t remember much of it. Everyone raves about Ragtime though and I will read that one day. This book sounds fabulous too – and 9.5/10 is high praise – it’s going on the wishlist immediately.

    • I just thought this book was brilliant Annabel. I have noticed already that if I am expecting a book to be brilliant (Like O’Farrell today) it is getting slightly lower marks than on that shocks me by its brilliance like this… am not sure that seems fair! Hmmm.

  3. I’ve never even heard of this author let alone read him – sounds interesting – I’m sure I’ll see him all over the place now.

  4. I’ve heard of Doctorow, but have yet to read any of his books. However after your review of this one in conjunction with the 9.5 rating you gave it – wow! I’m most definitely adding this title to my TBR list. Sounds absolutely intriguing the way he uses both brother’s ailments (blindness, hoarding, mental issues post war, etc) to vividly describe their home life and reclusiveness. Thanks for the heads up on this one! Cheers!

    • No worries Nadia this is a superb book and I am now wondering how it missed on getting a Pulitzer nod at least because the writing the scope and just the vision is all so superb!

  5. Deb

    I just finished this book a couple of months ago and felt just as enthusiastic about it as you did. As you noted, Doctorow makes a very clever narrative decision by having the story told from the point of view of the blind brother. We don’t ever “see” the calamity that the house is becoming, but we absorb it through the brother’s other senses: what he can hear, smell, taste, and touch. And the book’s last paragraph is absolutely chilling and very sad.

    Regarding where to go next, if you want to read more Doctorow, I recommend that you read his classic, RAGTIME, and also BILLY BATHGATE. Both fictionalize aspects of American history but without that tacked-on feel that always spoiled James Michener’s books for me.

    As for hoarding behavior, here in the States it seems that a week doesn’t go by without the Health Department having to raid a house that has over 100 cats or 30 years of undisposed trash inside. Television has gotten on the bandwagon and we have not one but two hoarding shows on TV: A&E’s “Hoarders” and TLC’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” Ah yes, good times!

    • You are spot on Deb we don’t ‘see’ it but because if the way its desribed it incredibly visual and that was one of the master strokes of this book you saw everything more vividly because it was desribed so wonderful, mind you that makes it sound like its an overly wordy book and thats not the case.

      If we had hoarding shows on here in the UK I would be glued to my TV set. i have to make do with shows about rich british nuts who own massive castles and won’t empty them out which isn’t quite the same lol.

  6. Wow, that picture is shocking! I can’t believe how much stuff is in their house. I am impressed that the book covered so much time in such a short amount of pages and was able to draw you in so completely. I’ve added it to my wish list as it sounds wonderful.

  7. Heidi

    I read this and enjoyed it too (the ending was just wrenching and well done) but my difficulty was in knowing about the Collyer brothers and the changes the author made to their actual lives that was hard to deal with. Their true story is so intriguing it felt strange to change so much (for instance the blind brother was actually Langley and he went blind in his 30’s and they died in the 1940s). But that can be the whole danger of historical fiction about real people. Interesting trivia for you: in the states referring to a messy room is still often referred to as something the Collyer brothers would live in! I haven’t read it but the next Doctorow I think I want to read is World’s Fair. Nine year old boy is the narrator in 1930s New York who of course visits the world fair and this won the National Book award.

    • The ending really upset me and has stayed with me long (well a week and a bit) after putting the book down.

      I noticed the difference after reading the book and then reading about them, for example their parents didn’t die like they do in the book etc.

      I might start using that Collyers expression, I didn’t realise it was something that was still in circulation in the US or even in the conciousness (not meaning to make that sound rude).

  8. I read Ragtime last year and it was my first Doctorow. I have picked this one up more than once in the past few months but something else always draws my attention away. Now I’m going to have to make an extra effort to grab this one!

    • Do give this one a go I would love to hear how more people feel about it as it seems to be a book that many people have yet to discover (I have seen it no blogs yet – though haven’t hunted properly as yet).

  9. Ragtime is definitely his most famous novel; there’s a Modern Library edition of it after all.

    March is very, very good; it’s about Sherman’s march and the burning of the South during World War II.

    I think I might start there and then go to Ragtime.

  10. Sounds interesting. One of Doctorow’s books, Ragtime, was made into a musical. I have yet to read the book (although its blend of social history and fiction is something I think I’d love), but I love the song “Your Daddy’s Son.”

  11. Ellen

    In my opinion this novel beautifully illustrates how an artist, Doctorow, can use actual events as the inspiration for a work of art. Yes, the Collyer brothers were actual people but the novel does not purport to be some kind of fictionalized biography. Doctorow is one of the great living American authors and concentrates on American themes. I believe this is his strongest work since the not-to-be- missed Ragtime and I encourage all to read it. Billy Bathgate is also a great read.

    • No and maybe I should ahev made that a little clearer in my review Ellen as Doctorow does take a true story and twist it to make a fictional tale. I will try Ragtime next I think and see how I get on from there, or maybe I should leave that masterpiece until last?

  12. Ellen

    Doctorow does this throughout his work. There are many allusions to actual historical events and actual people populate the novels as well as archetypes. For instance, some of the main characters in Ragtime are called Mother and Father and Younger Brother, but JP Morgan and Teddy Roosevelt are there as well. It is so interesting to me that Homer is blind just as the classical Homer of Odyssey fame was blind. The title of another novel, March, which is about the American Civil War, shares its title with the family name of the family in Little Women, perhaps the best known of Civil War novels. In that book, the grandfather of Coalhouse Walker, the protagonist of Ragtime, appears. Doctorow layers it all in for us throughout his body of work: one author’s view of the history of America. As you probably have figured out by now, I am a big fan. I know you will enjoy Ragtime and your powerful blog will help to promote Doctorow’s work in the UK. Sorry for going on and on!!
    Love your blog Simon

  13. I definitely recommend Ragtime – just read it earlier this year, and while Doctorow’s style took a few chapters to get used to, I loved it. Full of historical references and allusions, so much so that I found myself researching events to find out what parts were true and which were fictionalized. Adding Homer and Langley to my to-read list. Thanks for the review!

  14. Pingback: June’s Incomings… | Savidge Reads

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