E. L. Doctorow
Confessions of a book reviewer:
Confession One: I currently own a number of E. L. Doctorow’s novels but I’ve never actually read any of his works. That is until Homer & Langley. (I never understood what I was missing but now have something to look forward to.)
Confession Two: I had not heard of the Collyer brothers before reading Doctorow’s loosely based account of these very real yet tragic characters. Being a Midwesterner this particular story had never come to my attention.
Homer and Langley Collyer were the sons of a successful doctor and as such grew up in the relative comfort of pre-World War I Manhattan. They lived and died in a brownstone mansion in Harlem, which was in a fashionable and trendy neighborhood when it was originally purchased. Both brothers attended Columbia University. Homer received a degree in admiralty law and Langley earned a degree in engineering. As the neighborhood deteriorated and after the abandonment of their father and the eventual death of both parents the brothers inherited the mansion and became hermits and hoarders in their own home. Electing to remove themselves from society the two men began to hoard an eclectic list of items; tons of bound newspapers, books (law and medicine), mechanical contraptions (including a working Model T), scientific oddities (jars of medical samples), and numerous household appliances and knick-knacks. When burglars, who’d heard they were hoarding cash, gold, and jewelry attempted to break in the men closed off the house and set traps to deter additional would-be thieves and intruders. In the end the massive hoarding (over 134 tons of clutter) and the improvised traps would prove their downfall. Both men were found dead in 1947. Homer succumbed to starvation after the death of his brother and Langley was crushed to death by one of his own traps.
I found E. L. Doctorow’s style lyrical, provocative, and spellbinding and “Homer & Langley” is beautifully written and wonderfully illustrative of character, place and time. Told in the first person by Homer Langley the story engrossingly recounts the genesis of the hermetic attitudes adopted by the men and gives us an insight as to how and why their world changed so dramatically over the course of their lives.
Doctorow takes minor liberties with the time line in which the Collyer Brothers lived but it in no way deters from the story itself. He succinctly presents world events through the lives of the brothers as they intersect each other. Beginning just after World War I and culminating in the 1980’s we follow the brothers through their failing health and their troubles with the utility companies, banks, and neighbors. Knowing full well at the beginning of the story that it was going to end in tragedy I was, nonetheless, captivated by the details and Doctorow’s prose. If Homer Langley had lived to recount his memoir this is much what it might have been. Doctorow handles the Collyer’s history as it was surely meant to be. Insightful and tragic yet full of the spirit and nature of men trapped by circumstance he gives voice to a family that could not do so on their own.
As the narrative glides through the decades Homer and Langley are befriended by a gangster, invite friends and neighbors into their home to dance, turn their home into a safe haven for immigrants, take up with a group of counter-culture hippies, and then plunge into the depths of ill-mental and physical health and paranoia.
In the final chapters of the story, after Homer has become completely blind and when he’s lost most of his hearing, a sympathetic character tells him, “You think a word and you can hear its sound. I am telling you what I know – words have music and if you are a musician you will write to hear them.” This is, I believe, Doctorow’s Creative Doctrine and he certainly follows the law to the letter in this story. Lyrical, musical and emotionally evocative “Homer & Langley” is a must read.
4 stars out of 5
E. L. Doctorow Wikipedia Link
Official E. L. Doctorow Link
Collyer Brothers Wikipedia Link
New York Press Collyer Brothers Article
CBS News Article
More about Disposophobia (or The Collyer Brothers Syndrome)
Related Reading Material:
William Bryk (April 13, 2005). "The Collyer Brothers". New York Sun
"The Collyer Brothers". Psychologist World
"Collyer Brothers Park" New York City Department of Parks and Recreation
Franz Lidz, "Ghosty Men: The Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers, New York's Greatest Hoarders: An Urban Historical"