A 20th Century Odyssey: Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

Homer &L angley by E.L. Doctorow1.

This is the incident that made Homer & Langley Collyer infamous.  After years of the brothers being hounded by reporters, bill collectors and concerned relatives (all of whom believed their mattresses stuffed with cash), an anonymous call was made to the authorities about a dead body.  When the police attempted to investigate, they couldn’t enter the house.  They couldn’t even open the doors.  They were forced to begin emptying out the building of the accumulated garbage in order to get inside.  Homer was discovered first and pronounced dead of starvation.  It took over two weeks to find Langley’s body, buried under the debris only 10 feet away from his brother.  He’d been bringing Homer food through one of the newspaper tunnels that created a labyrinth throughout the house and had triggered one of his own booby traps.  The body was partially decomposed and eaten by the rats.  He had died first, Homer slowly after.  103 tons of garbage was eventually removed from their Fifth Avenue home, most of it worthless junk.  (These details are taken from Wikipedia and a NY Press article you can find here – and don’t worry, I didn’t just give away the ending).

Two elderly men turning their Fifth Avenue mansion into a landfill, which they eventually become a part of, hardly seems the stuff of great literature.  But E.L. Doctorow manages to create in Homer & Langley a story that transcends its subjects in ways that only the best historical fiction can do.  He accomplishes this mainly by playing fast and loose with the facts.

Those facts are as follows (and I’m going to try my best to keep this brief):  Langley was the younger brother and the pianist – roles Doctorow assigns to Homer.   Neither brother seems to have served in WWI, nor did their parents die in the Influenza Pandemic.  Those incidents are most likely part of the fiction of the book, made up by the author in order to get the plot rolling.  The actual Collyer parents did not die until the boys were men in their late 40’s.  Homer did not go blind until age 52 (in the novel this happens while he is still young).  Both brothers held jobs.  Homer practiced law and Langley was a concert pianist.  The hoarding did not seem to have started in earnest until they were both well past mid-life.

I include this contrast between fact and fiction to show how integral a novelist’s choices are to the success of a novel.  The liberties Doctorow takes allow him to enlist a blind narrator, (named Homer, no less), to tell his story.  Homer’s voice relaying their day-to-day lives takes the events out of the realm of sensationalism and gives them a sense of normalcy.   There is also the double bonus of his blindness, first as a Classical reference and second as allowing the reader to feel the accumulation of objects happening around him.  We experience Homer’s world becoming a smaller and smaller place while never actually seeing it happen.  What he describes to us is only his version, necessarily limited.  When he conveys to us the  reactions of the people  he and Langley collect like so many things throughout the book, we’re left to wonder what is his basis.

Our new friends simply assumed they were to come home with us and we didn’t even make a point of acquiescing, as that would have been in bad form.  It was as if – without knowing any of them or which of them belonged to which name – we’d been inducted into a relaxed and sophisticated fellowship, an advanced society, where ordinary proprieties were square.  That was one of their words.  Also crash, meaning, as I was to learn, boarding with us.  We’d been recognized, is how I felt, as did Langley I could tell, as if with an honorific.  And when these children – there were five who peeled off from the larger group and walked up the steps into our house, two males and three females – saw of what a warehouse of precious acquisitions it was comprised, they were moved beyond measure.  I listened to their silence and it seemed to me churchlike.  They stood in awe in the dim light of the dining room looking upon our Model T on its sunken tires and with the cobwebs of years draped over it like an intricate netting of cat’s cradles, and one of the girls, Lissy – the one I was to bond with – Lissy said, Oh wow! and I considered the possibility, after drinking too much of their bad wine, that my brother and I were, willy-nilly and ipso facto, prophets of a new age.

But unlike the objects Langley brings home, none of the people stay.

2.

Homer as narrator shapes the novel into a kind of reverse Odyssey.  Odysseus and his crew spent 20 years zigzagging the map on their journey home.  In Homer & Langley, the 20th century shuffles through the Collyer’s mansion in a surprisingly orderly fashion.  The end result is no less epic.  The fictional Collyer brothers long outlive the factual ones, and so are allowed to experience the Depression, both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, the moonwalk, civil rights and more.  (Events grow fuzzy towards the end of the novel as Homer becomes deaf as well as blind, but my guess is that the end comes around the mid 80’s).    Not only do they collect a century’s trash, they collect its history.  Langley saves and clips decades of newspaper in order to complete his great project – what his brother refers to as “Collyer’s forever up-to-date newspaper”.  Eventually, and increasingly, they find themselves the subject of Langley’s clippings.

The first reporter who rang our bell – a really stupid young man who expected to be invited in, and when we wouldn’t permit that, stood there asking offensive questions, even shouting them out after we had slammed the door – made me realize it was a class of disgustingly fallible human beings who turned themselves into infallible print every day, compounding the historical record that stood in our house like bales of cotton.  If you talk to these people you are at their mercy, and if you don’t talk to them you are at their mercy.  Langley said to me, We are a story, Homer.  Listen to this – and he read this supposedly factual account about these weird eccentrics who had shuttered their windows and bolted their doors and run up thousands of dollars of unpaid bills though they were worth millions.  It had our ages wrong, Langley was called Larry, and a neighbor, un-named, thought we kept women against their will.  That our house was a blight on the neighborhood was never in question.  Even the abandoned peregrine nest up under the roof ledge was held against us.

I said to my brother: How would you run this in Collyer’s forever up-to-date newspaper?

We are sui generis, Homer, he said.  Unless someone comes along as remarkably prophetic as we are, I’m obliged to ignore our existence”.

In Langley’s forever up-to-date paper for something to have meaning it has to be duplicated.  One is never enough.  Like Plato, he is looking for the essence of things and events.  It is just another tie-in Doctorow makes to classical literature.  Yet, the Odyssey is not just a false construct that Doctorow uses to structure his novel.  No forced parallels are drawn – we do not meet the Minotaur or a character who represents Achilles.  Doctorow is too subtle.  He has simply and brilliantly given us the contemporary equivalent – modern man’s story told in epic themes.  Homer & Langley represent our 21st century selves (an interpretation I admit to having trouble accepting in the beginning).

But the reality is impossible to ignore.  Our homes are filled with the things that we collect but do not necessarily need.  Great feats no longer require long journeys from home.  In addition to objects we, like Langley, collect our own history.  Visiting & re-visiting it through the mediums of books, documentaries, lectures, papers, photographs, coursework, etc.   It seems less extreme than the Collyers’ hoarding behavior only because we have the luxury to digitization and storage units.

Homer & Langley is in the end a remarkably uncluttered and beautiful book.   It is one of those novels that will only grow better with re- reading. Each time providing new discoveries. Very, very BookSexy.

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