Review: Homer and Langley by El Doctorow
(Little, Brown, Stg£11.99)
Published 23/01/2010 | 05:00
Truth is stranger than fiction. In 1947 the body of hermit Homer Collyer was discovered in the decrepit Manhattan mansion he shared with his equally reclusive brother Langley. Suspecting foul play, the police instigated a manhunt for Langley but eventually found his corpse under a mountain of rubbish close to his brother.
The men had been the sons of wealthy parents who had died in the influenza epidemic of 1919. As a young man, Homer became blind, while Langley returned from the 1914-1918 war physically stricken and psychologically traumatised. Gradually the brothers retreated more and more from the outside world, with Langley increasingly obsessed with hoarding things -- newspapers, banjos, pianos, even a Model T Ford, which was installed in the dining room. This phenomenal clutter is what the authorities discovered when they entered the Collyer home in 1947 and it is what made these eccentric siblings figures of legendary renown in their native city.
E L Doctorow takes these basic facts but makes free with them, shifting the Collyer's stately townhouse from Harlem to Fifth Avenue and allowing the brothers to survive for 30 years longer than their actual allotted span -- by which means he's able to include the Korean and Vietnam wars, peace protests and the 1969 moon landing in his narrative.
Yet if he's using the brothers as oddball witnesses to historic occurrences, he doesn't seem much interested in these momentous events -- we're told in passing of the "three great men who'd been assassinated" in 1960s America and there's an equally glancing reference to "the mass suicide of 900 people living in a small South American country" in the 1970s, as if such matters are of no consequence. In fact, everything that happens, either globally or to the brothers themselves, constitutes "only one more passing event in our lives."
That's Homer speaking and Doctorow has limited the possibilities of his narrative by choosing this blind man as the book's voice. We see everything through his sightless eyes and while this lends the narrative an intriguing and sometimes unsettling intimacy, it also straitjackets our response to what we're being told.
What saves the book from being stifling is Doctorow's gift for sketching in minor characters -- the Irish housekeeper and the black cook are vivid creations, as are the alluring young musical assistant with whom Homer becomes hopelessly infatuated and the dangerously affable gangster he and Langley encounter in a speakeasy: "I knew he was the real thing because when he laughed, other men at the table laughed with him."
And there's a real sense of how remote and alien the outside world gradually becomes to these self-absorbed brothers as they descend into self-willed domestic chaos, though the tone remains too benign, indeed too blinkered, to convey the underlying madness and eventual horror of such an existence.