I borrowed Homer and Langley by E.L.Doctorow when I saw it at the library because my good friend Lurline had recommended the author. The March has been on my TBR for ages, and is also on my list of books to read for the The 2010 Book Awards Reading Challenge because it won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2005.
So my expectations of this author were high, and although I wasn’t excited in the way that I was by the discovery of intellectually stimulating writers like David Foster and Gerald Murnane, I wasn’t disappointed. Homer and Langley is rather a simple story, told as a straightforward first person narrative with no fancy postmodern tricks, but it’s quite compelling. It’s the melancholy tale of brothers Homer and Langley who live as recluses in a New York apartment, their lives gradually overwhelmed by Langley’s obsessive hoarding.
Those of us who watch Collectors on ABC TV are familiar with the sight of collections getting a bit out of hand, but Langley’s habits are something else again. Damaged by his experiences in the Great War, he hoards every newspaper he comes across, and keeps a T-Model Ford in the dining-room. He crosses the line when his obsession gets to the stage where Homer, who is blind, cannot negotiate his way around the house any more. He used to enjoy sitting in the yard in the sunshine, but it becomes impossible as it fills up with ‘things accumulated over the years that we had bought or salvaged in expectation of their possible usefulness some time in the future.’ (p95) Inside, every room has become an ‘obstacle course’ (p96), and this would be cruel of Langley if he were capable of empathy, but he’s not. On the rare occasions when he’s tackled about the impracticability of something, (as when the housekeeper demurs about the newspapers) he dreams up some vaguely philosophical explanation such as his ‘theory of replacements’ to justify it. Indeed as time goes by, it is Langley who is blind to the catastrophic state of the house. (These days he would probably be diagnosed as having Asberger’s Syndrome).
By contrast, it is Homer who sees. It is he who guides the impromptu household out of the chaos when the city’s lights fail, but it is also he who sees how others see him. Langley gets the idea that they could earn some money by competing in game shows, but decides in the end that it wouldn’t be worth the indignity of it. It’s Homer who recognises that, with Langley’s matted hair hanging down his back and his own Lisztian fall, together with their faded army greens and boots, they would not have been ‘sartorially typecast’ anyway. (p108) ‘
Homer’s bland way of recording their bizarre way of life only occasionally reveals the impact on him: an intelligent man with a love of classical music and a talent for the piano, he admits to being bored and actually enjoys the invasion of the house by a mob of gangsters. His mild acceptance of his brother’s obsession – ‘one [thing] would not do where an assortment might be had’ (p118) eventually becomes more like absolute submission to Langley and it is futile to protest. He considers the possibility that Langley is insane, (p132) but does nothing about it.
Neither does anyone else. In the early years there is a veritable parade of characters through this monstrous house, from FBI agents to hippies using it as a place to squat between demos but they all seem to accept it as an eccentricity. Later, neighbours alert the fire brigade when there is a fire in the kitchen and that brings the health department, but Langley barricades the doors and windows and resists all attempts to intervene. When the utilities are cut off he simply goes shopping for a collection of lamps and the brothers forage for water in Central Park.
Most tragic of all is that Homer loses his hearing too so that he, whose sole solace is music, is worse off than Beethoven, who could at least see. (p174) He dreams of love; he writes his story using a braille typewriter, and his miserable world closes in around him…
After I finished reading it, I went looking for other reviews as I usually do, and discovered that Doctorow’s novel is based on an appalling true story. Born in the 1880s, the Collyer Brothers lived for decades in filth and chaos and died a gruesome death in the 1940s after a lifetime of eccentric hoarding.
It reminded me, in an offbeat way, of Patrick White’s The Solid Mandala. White’s novel is modernist, but the brothers Waldo and Arthur Brown are similarly trapped together by their mutual dependence and their inability to fit into the society in which they find themselves. They too share everything except their view of things.
Author: E.L. Doctorow
Title: Homer and Langley
Publisher: Random House 2009
Source: Kingston Library