I just finished reading E.L. Doctorow’s newest novel, Homer & Langley, and am again convinced that he is our foremost chronicler of the American myth.
His weaving of historical places, people, and events just gets sharper with every new book, and the latest is indeed a fine tapestry. He first came to the attention of readers with The Book of Daniel, which is set in mid-20th century America and deals with the Communist scares and the execution of the Rosenbergs. But it was his bestseller Ragtime that propelled him into the American literary consciousness. The novel opens in 1902 and ends with World War I. The New Rochelle, NY, family seems to be at the crossroads of everything important that happens during those years. Magician Harry Houdini’s car breaks down in front of their house, the father runs off on an Arctic exploration with Admiral Peary, and the famous and infamous cross paths with each other and the family at every turn: Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Booker T. Washington. Doctorow weaves a great American myth-history that is sweeping while at the same time intimate. After devouring Ragtime nearly 35 years ago I was hooked. My favorites since then are Loon Lake, Billy Bathgate, and City of God.
In Homer & Langley, Doctorow takes a story that both fascinated and horrified New York City in the 1930s and 1940s and endows it with myth and introspection. The Collyer Brothers, Homer and Langley, were notorious eccentrics who lived together in a Fifth Avenue brownstone that had belonged to their wealthy parents. New York was captivated when the brothers died in 1947 and the full extent of their hoarding and paranoia became apparent. By the time the place was emptied, police had found hundreds of yards of silk fabrics, over 25,000 books, a Model T Ford, 14 pianos, stacks of newspapers and magazines that reached the ceilings, and over 100 tons of other junk and garbage. The ceilings had crashed down in some rooms, victims of a leaking roof. The house could not be salvaged and was eventually demolished. In its place is a small park, Collyer Brothers Park.
The story, narrated by Homer, extends beyond those dates well into the 1970s. Facts like dates don’t matter, of course. This is a novel, after all. The first-person narrative allows us to see the passage of time, current events, and personal relationships through the mind of the most sane of the brothers. Homer is blind, so his sense of the world differs from ours. He is at first a keen observer, then eventually a devoted brother and complicit eccentric. The novel begins with the sentence, “I’m Homer, the blind brother.” But it is the second sentence that proves to be prophetic: “I didn’t lose my sight all at once, it was like the movies, a slow fade-out.” That is, of course, the only way the novel can end. Slowly, carefully, moving toward a conclusion that is as inevitable as history.