Fiction: "Homer & Langley," by E.L. Doctorow
Langley Collyer, the Harlem recluse, makes a public appearance in September 1942, from one of the dingy upper windows of the ramshackle New York brownstone where he and his brother, Homer, lived. He was loudly inviting assistance against "invaders," the clean-up squads sent to tidy up the property.
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Specific moments in American history are the stuff of E.L. Doctorow's imagination, an imagination that has created some of the best fiction of the past 30 years or so.
When he explores a single topic -- Sherman's Southern campaign in the Civil War, "The March" or the clash of cultures in the early 20th century, "Ragtime" -- the novelist brings a new understanding and insight.
Doctorow's not as successful with modern times. "City of God," his 2000 mediation on religion and love in contemporary New York, headed off in a dozen directions in both theme and history. "Sweet Land Stories," five pieces of short fiction published in 2004, is a joyless portrait of discontinuity and death in the land.
In "Homer & Langley," he tries to embrace a big chunk of the previous century, but instead of opening his arms wide, he squeezes about 80 years into 208 pages. It seems like a half a book; what's missing is Doctorow's historical investigations. The other half, the personal stories of the characters, is what we get and there's not enough there.
The real Homer and Langley Collyer were infamous New York City eccentrics, two crazy brothers who retreated from life beneath tons of trash in their parents' once-elegant Fifth Avenue mansion in Harlem. After they died in 1947, the city removed nearly 100 tons of junk, including a car, 25,000 books and 14 pianos.
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Much of the refuse was newspapers, a point Doctorow seizes upon in re-creating the brothers' story in fictional form with the blind Homer (hmm) as the narrator and Langley as the man of action who wants to write a "dateless" newspaper as prophecy, so he collects and clips all the papers.
"He wanted to fix American life finally in one edition," Homer writes. "For five cents ...the reader will have a portrait in newsprint of our life on earth. ... The reader will always be up to date, and au courant with what is going on."
The idea is ripe with possibility, but comes to a dead end. How can Langley produce a chronicle of the country if he never experiences it, isolated behind his crumbling walls?
Occasionally, the world does come inside the house. A mobster they befriend sends them prostitutes. A Japanese couple working as caretakers are arrested and interred when the country enters World War II. A hippie quartet "crashes their pad" after a Vietnam War rally in Central Park.
These encounters only drive the brothers deeper into their isolation and estrangement. "Was this country unexceptional, after all?" Homer wonders as the Viet conflict escalated. It's a question that Doctorow has never asked before in his books, a sign perhaps that the Collyer brothers retreat seems a reasonable response to the present day.
Yet, the brothers' escape is not reasonable, only paranoia, a siege mentality that leads Langley to turn the moldering house into a labyrinth of booby traps, as the real Langley did, to his sorrow.
Doctorow creates a sensitive, soulful character in Homer, tapping out the story on Braille typewriters in often lovely descriptive prose, pretty remarkable for a blind man. Times are telescoped, sometimes overlap, in the gentle confusion of Homer's mind. It's a reverie, a true mediation. What Homer and his readers could use is meaning and purpose.
The lives of Collyer brothers, real and fictional, produced little but an obsession with junk, a massive landfill of worthless trash. What's the meaning in that?
I can only imagine a grim one.
First Published September 13, 2009 12:00 am