Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Review: Homer and Langley

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow
4 stars

Reasons for reading: this month's book club selection

From the publisher: "Homer and Langley Collyer are brothers–the one blind and deeply intuitive, the other damaged into madness, or perhaps greatness, by mustard gas in the Great War. They live as recluses in their once grand Fifth Avenue mansion, scavenging the city streets for things they think they can use, hoarding the daily newspapers as research for Langley’s proposed dateless newspaper whose reportage will be as prophecy. Yet the epic events of the century play out in the lives of the two brothers–wars, political movements, technological advances–and even though they want nothing more than to shut out the world, history seems to pass through their cluttered house in the persons of immigrants, prostitutes, society women, government agents, gangsters, jazz musicians . . . and their housebound lives are fraught with odyssean peril as they struggle to survive and create meaning for themselves."

First line: "I'm Homer, the blind brother."

My thoughts: This was a very well-written, interesting book. Doctorow immerses the reader in the lives of these eccentric brothers. Their descent into hoarding, their eccentric outlook on life (especially Langley), and, the part that I enjoyed most, their fraternal love for each other. Deserted by every other person in their lives, they had only each other and their house to rely on. Despite their strangeness, it was quite a portrait of brotherly devotion.

The book covers 4 wars and many changes in society and New York City. It's interesting to see them from the brothers' viewpoint - most things don't really affect them, but Langley does get excited about new technology (although he often discards it once the novelty wears off) and their neighbourhood slowly changes from wealthy to poor, ungentrified Harlem.

I have to say, though, that I find the real story of the brothers just as interesting as the book. There are photos and a history of the men here:
One thing that I found a bit odd about the book was that their lives seemed to be very, very long. When I looked them up online, I saw that they both died in 1947, 20+ years before their demise in the book. (Their dates are mentioned in the book and Doctorow notes that it's a work of fiction, I just hadn't noticed the dates beforehand.) While it's conceivable that a World War I veteran would live that long, I definitely found it a bit odd, especially since Homer is sleeping with a young hippie girl and Langley is still ambulatory enough to roam all over New York to get their food and water. I doubt he would have been able to do this at 89 or so. So that was a bit of a niggle as I was reading it, but not enough to put me off what was otherwise a great story.

The verdict: I've always been daunted by Doctorow, but this shorter book was a good introduction. I may read more of his books and I bet they'll get me interested in looking up the historical figures/events they're based on.

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