American Eccentrics

Doctorow Escapes Being Hemmed in by History

By Benjamin Pollak

Published August 26, 2009, issue of September 04, 2009.
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Homer and Langley Collyer became reluctant celebrities in the late 1930s when their decaying Harlem mansion began to attract the attention of neighbors and the press. Scions of an old New York family, the Collyer brothers had lived alone in the four-story brownstone since their mother’s death in the late ‘20s, leaving their home less and less often, as Homer lost his eyesight and the once-fashionable neighborhood sank into poverty. Instead, the brothers brought the outside world to them, compulsively collecting, among other things, newspapers, books, outdated medical equipment, pianos (at least 14 were later found), and the better part of a Ford Model T.

By 1947, the brothers had been living without gas, electricity, water, or telephone service for nearly a decade. Booby-trapped tunnels traversed the ceiling-high piles of junk. Police officers, responding to a call, found Homer’s body in one of these clearings, his clothes in tatters, his knees doubled under his chin where they had been frozen into position by arthritis. Surrounding him were more than 150 tons of junk and rusting treasures. It took police and removal crews several more days to find Langley’s body, although it lay only feet away from Homer’s, hidden by the piles of paper that had buried him alive when he triggered one of his own booby-traps.

Not surprisingly, the story of the Collyer brothers has been fertile territory for playwrights and novelists, as well as the journalists who first brought it to the public’s attention. Its latest adaptation, E.L. Doctorow’s gently luminous novel, “Homer & Langley,” breathes new life into the story, endowing the brothers’ seemingly inexplicable actions with a hallucinatory, indigenous American logic. Focusing on the ideas behind their unusual lifestyle rather than on the details of its eccentricity, the novel recasts the brothers’ reclusiveness and hoarding as attempts — if not logical in effect, at least in cause — to tame a recalcitrant world that, in a century of genocide and war, had spun hopelessly out of control.

Narrated by Homer, who in Doctorow’s telling eventually loses his hearing as well as his vision, the events of the novel have a sensual, dreamlike quality. The grotesque details of the real story — the stench of decay that permeated the mansion in the brothers’ final years, its desperate squalor — are replaced by a shadow world of melancholy beauty that Homer evokes through sound and touch. Taking the form of a sustained recollection addressed to Jacqueline Roux, a French journalist who makes a memorable, if brief, appearance toward the end of the book, the story is told with deceptive simplicity and a breathless momentum. Short, declarative statements are distributed like punctuation marks among sentences so long they create their own internal rhythms. Years pass in the space of a few lines or pages as Homer moves between episodes of his life with Langley. A consummate stylist, Doctorow pushes against the limitations imposed by his narrator’s blindness, crafting a narrative in which sound and rhythm do the work usually left to imagery.

Homer’s blindness, in Doctorow’s hands, becomes a metaphor for the brothers’ isolation within their shuttered, unlighted mansion. From the seclusion of their home, they contemplate the external world with the curiosity and detachment of scientists fascinated with the terrible strangeness of their subject. Referring to the Model T inside their house, Langley observes, “You wouldn’t think this car was hideous to behold on the street. But here in our elegant dining room its true nature as a monstrosity is apparent.” At other times, the Collyer mansion resembles a contemporary version of Plato’s cave, a dramatic reminder of the limitations of our knowledge of the world. As Langley reminds us in characteristically didactic style, “among the philosophers there is endless debate as to whether we see the real world or only the world as it appears in our minds, which is not necessarily the same thing. So if that’s the case, if the real world is A, and what we see projected on our minds is B, and that’s the best we can hope for, then it’s not just your problem.

Injured by mustard gas during the First World War, Langley returns to New York embittered, his health ruined and his faith in civilization converted to a sardonic nihilism. Determined to puncture society’s naïve belief in progress, Langley begins to amass an exhaustive newspaper archive that will demonstrate the cyclical nature of history. His plan is to create a single newspaper in which each major category of event — war, crime, murder, automobile accidents, etc. — is rendered in its archetypal, timeless form. For a nickel, as he explains to his skeptical brother, “the reader will have a portrait in newsprint of our life on earth,” complete with the news “of his own impending death, which will be dutifully recorded as a number in the blank box on the last page under the heading Obituaries.”

Though the obituaries for the real Collyer brothers were published only two years after the end of the Second World War, Doctorow has their fictional counterparts live well into the age of computers. Indeed, “Homer & Langley” is as much a story of the American 20th century as it is of the Collyer brothers. Despite withdrawing from the external world, Homer and Langley continue to receive its tidings through the people and objects that find their way into their home. They learn of the Harlem Renaissance from a young jazz musician who stays with them, and of the Holocaust from the door-to-door appeals of Jewish aid organizations. “It was as if the times blew through our house like a wind, and these were the things deposited here by the winds of war,” Homer observes when Langley brings home a bundle of World War II gas masks, boots, and army fatigues. In the 1960s, a group of young hippies, one of whom becomes Homer’s lover, spends a summer in their house, recognizing in the Collyer brothers an affirmation of their fight against social constraint. “I considered the possibility, after drinking too much of their bad wine, that my brother and I were, willy-nilly and ipso facto, prophets of a new age,” Homer muses.

By the end of the book, it’s a possibility we’re prepared to consider as well. “Homer & Langley,” as Doctorow’s finest novels, suggests deeper truths about the lives of its protagonists and the place they occupy in our national mythology, even as it freely rearranges the facts of their biographies. The story of the Collyer brothers, Doctorow shows us, is also a story of the triumphs and fatal excesses of the nation in which they lived. In a country that celebrates individuality, independence, and extravagant consumption as national values, Homer and Langley are, by virtue of their very eccentricities, paradoxically American. As Langley explains in words that could easily have been spoken by the country’s founders, “We will keep our own counsel. And defend ourselves. We’ve got to stand up to the world — we’re not free if it’s at someone else’s sufferance.” More than 60 years after their deaths, maybe it’s not so much the strangeness of the Collyer brothers that makes their story continue to be relevant, but their unnerving familiarity.

Benjamin Pollak is a doctoral student in the English Department at the University of Michigan.

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