New York City-based writer E.L Doctorow has an eye for historical detail—truthful historical detail to be more specific—but doesn’t so rely on historical elements that the purpose of the book—is it history of historicity?—is called into question. He is first and foremost a fiction writer, but the historical purpose of his work seems to be to remind us that history is not—and was not when that history was the present—without breath, agency and thought.
Doctorow’s most recent book, Homer & Langley, chronicles the lives of two reclusive, New York City-hoarders named Homer and Langley Collyer. In reality, the two brothers were born in the late 19th century and both died in the 1940’s in the Harlem brownstone where they lived most of their lives. The brothers died gruesomely—Langley, the younger brother, who set a number of booby traps in the house to protect their possessions from vandals, was killed by one of his own traps. His older brother, Homer, who was blind and paralyzed, died from starvation a few days later.
Doctorow’s book takes a few liberties with the brothers’ stories, but also gives them more humanity than the newspaper accounts during their lives and after their deaths. Doctorow’s brothers live on the Upper East Side, Fifth Avenue to be precise, obviously an upscale neighborhood. Langley is the older brother in the story, and Homer, the younger brother, is blind is whole life, but becomes deaf in his old age. The end of the novel perhaps is clarified by the real-life story, but the confusion in Doctorow’s account is perhaps more interesting, and truer to Homer’s story in the book and in life.
The book is a philosophical account of two lives lived—not well, by any societal account—told from the perspective of young-brother-in-the-novel, Homer. The two fictional brothers are given a greater breadth of experiences than we can assume of the real-life brothers, including meeting mobsters, sleeping with hippies, yearning for nuns and contemplating the creation of a universal newspaper that will be relevant until the end of time. Reclusive life—if not hoarding itself—is given a rhyme and a reason, and, in some respects, Doctorow creates the Collyers as preserving the last bastion of true freedom amidst urban life.
The reader knows Homer from his youth, and, in a strange sort of bildungsroman, we see him age, fall in love, find his passion, lose it, and, in the process, try to find meaning in it all. It’s a wonderful, unusual book with heroes viewed through a smaller lens--a cluttered brownstone--than those with whom we are familiar.