Friday, November 13, 2009

Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow

So many of E.L. Doctorow's novels resemble the home of the two Collyer brothers - vast rooms of antique splendor littered with what some might consider refuse, seemingly preserved for a reason known only to the assembler of the vast collection. Then, when one arrives at the end, one is left with a satisfying appreciation of what remains and how it was assembled.

Doctorow is sometimes erroneously called a historical novelist, but his work merely uses history as a starting point. To tell his story, Doctorow feels no inclination to "stick to the facts." "Homer and Langley" is a prime example of this. The story seems a natural for Doctorow, which his love of Old New York and the passage of American life. But Doctorow takes the tale of the infamous hoarders and moves it from Harlem to Fifth Avenue, extending the lives of the brothers into the seventies.

The story is told through the eyes of Homer, which is interesting since Homer is blind. The novel begins when the brothers' parents are still alive, taking us through Langley's return from World War I forever changed. As Homer loses his sight and becomes more dependent on his brother, he also begins to witness - from a distance, emotional and visual - his brother's decline into madness.

Over the decades, the Collyers turn their home into a safe house - for musicians, a Nisei family enduring suspicion during World War II, a gangster, hippies. And of course, for the wretched refuse of New York; chiefly, the newspapers Langley hordes in his attempt to create a one-time newspaper for the ages cataloging the times of their lives.

Langley fancies himself as a rationalist, unable to believe in anything except the absurdity and cruelty of life. When the brothers receive a letter from a missionary friend, he observes that it is "interesting that someone in the grip of such a monstrous religious fantasy - believing she is doing the Lord's work - is doing the work that the Lord would be doing if there was a Lord?" When they are left alone by a gangster on the lamb, Langley remembers how, as a boy, he decided he wanted no part of Heaven. "And if God is there after all, we should thank Him for reminding us of His hideous creation and dispelling any residual hope we might have had for an afterlife of fatuitous happiness in His presence."

All we need know of Homer is his response to this: "Langley was always able to life my dark moods for me." Homer trusts his brother, even as he seems him sink deeper into disconnection. Homer cries out for a companion, a protector, especially a female presence. His existence is a reminder to Langley that life is unfair and some things are beyond our control. But the brother nevertheless forges on with his quest to remain aloof from the world, untroubled by it, passing judgment from behind their shuttered rooms, choked floor to ceiling with clutter.

Much of this novel deals with the illusion of control, and the worlds we construct in order to flee the one outside our doors. But Doctorow's story, which could easily have been absolutely dark, instead brims with comedy and warmth. He lingers predictably over the familiar baby boomer touchstones of the sixties, but the journey is never obvious or heavy-handed. Instead, one feels some admiration for these brothers, each blind in his own way, viewing their lives through the yellowing headlines of a lifetime's collection.

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