Homer & Langley’s Odyssey
Posted by: Neil Hollands
When I was young, my favorite book was The Guinness Book of World Records. I looked forward to the new edition every year, but my favorite entries were those that never changed. A look at literature suggests that I’m not the only one whose imagination was captured. We’ve already seen siamese twins Chang and Eng turned into a novel by Darin Strauss and the tallest man, Robert Wadlow, must have inspired Elizabeth McCracken’s lovely novel The Giant’s House. When I saw that one of my favorite writers, E. L. Doctorow, was taking on the famously reclusive Collyer brothers, I had to snap up a copy of Homer & Langley.
The real Homer and Langley Collyer were born in the 1880s and died in 1947. Homer went blind in 1932 and was crippled by rheumatism. Famous hoarders of junk, they never paid their bills. The city finally turned off utilities at their 5th Avenue home in Harlem in 1939. Langley continued to scavenge the city for food, water, newspapers, and other “treasures.” Near eviction in 1942, and running out of stalling tactics, Langley wrote a check and paid the remainder of what was owed on the house. In 1947, an anonymous tip reported a dead body in the house. After several hours of burrowing through junk, police found Homer starved to death in his chair. Langley was missing, and a manhunt was started, but after over 100 tons of junk were pulled from the house, it turned out that he was only a few yards away from his brother, crushed by one of his own boobytraps as he crawled to bring Homer food.
Doctorow takes liberties with the Collyer’s story, starting their lives a few years later; making Langley a WWI vet; turning Homer blind at a younger age but removing the rheumatism that eventually paralyzed him; and extending their lives into the 1970s. He even moves their home a little closer to Central Park. The essential story, however, including many exact details, remains untouched. It’s a marvelous choice for book groups, loaded with discussion topics but quick to read at only 224 pages.
Doctorow sets himself three big challenges. The first is to believably explain such bizarre behavior and yet still make his protagonists sympathetic. The second is to tell a big story from the perspective of a man who is blind and trapped in his own home. The third is to make interesting historical fiction from the lives of two brothers who are most notable for their attempt to remove themselves from the flow of history. On all three counts, Doctorow somehow succeeds.
Despite minimal human contacts, Doctorow makes Homer and Langley Collyer into blind, mad prophets of the twentieth century. The book will leave readers pondering subjects such as the difference between collecting and obsession; the damages of war, loneliness & depression; the power of the interior life; the frustrations of bureaucracy; and the entrapment of age and disability. Doctorow handles these dark subjects while steadfastly refusing to become morose or depressing. It’s a marvelous achievement, one of the best books yet by one of our great writers.