BOOK REVIEW: 'Homer and Langley'
E.L. Doctorow's fictional tale is based on real-life reclusive New York brothers whose hoarding of items mirrors changes in American culture.
In many neighborhoods lives the recluse, the odd neighbor surrounded by myth and mostly unknown to those who live around him or her.
In some neighborhoods these characters are subject to torment by school children whose imaginations have run wild about the habits and life of the recluse.
Growing up in New York as a child, author, E.L. Doctorow can recall reading about such eccentric recluses, a set of brothers who hoarded their belongings in their three-story Fifth Avenue home.
Doctorow was among many others who became familiar with the Collyer brothers because they became an urban legend, not just in New York but also across the country. Years later, as a grown man, Doctorow would revisit the tale of the two New York brothers to masterfully weave his own tale about mortality and a commentary on American culture.
Braiding fact with fiction, Doctorow brings the brothers to life in Homer and Langley. Homer is blind; he lives with his brother Langley who served his country in World War I. Since returning, Langley is not the same man that he was when he left, which sets the stage for his hoarding.
Oddly, these two came from a well-to-do family; their father was a gynecologist who passed away a few years before their mother, leaving behind a loot of family heirlooms and fortunes.
Having everything they could need and born into a class that seemed destined for the same fortune it can be hard for readers to understand how these two could’ve become recluses, trying to escape the world outside their front door.
Even though the brothers tried shuttering themselves off from the world, reality barges through their front door on many occasions exposing them to life beyond their three-story accommodations.
A gangster from a popular crime family seeks refuge in their home, prostitutes comfort them, and squatters take up residence. Meanwhile, the utility companies are after them to pay their bills after many years of delinquency.
When Langley returned home from the war he brought home with him a new perspective on life, one which permeated his perception of the world around him. Troubled by what he saw during trench-style warfare, Langley becomes a tinkerer and a philosopher to occupy his mind.
While at home, he comes up with his “theory of replacements.” He believes that everything in the world, no matter what it is will be replaced; the greatest sports athlete, animals and even himself and his brother.
It's a perspective that undoubtedly came after watching his fallen comrades replaced with a new shipment of doe-eyed young boys. This perspective haunts Langley’s thoughts and that’s when he begins hoarding. The first piece of the collection is his rifle, which he hangs from the mantle.
At this point in the story Doctorow sets up his commentary on American culture. He takes the readers’ hand, guiding them through the 20th Century during the rise of the American consumer culture and points out along the way that iconic products began to define American culture and peoples’ lives.
Doctorow uses the brothers, who were subject to ridicule and torment during their lives on Fifth Avenue, to ask the readers if they’re really that different.
The brothers collect more and more things to fill up their lives and it’s these things that ultimately imprison them in their home and lead to a tragic end. This may be an extreme case but how is the rest of society different from these brothers?
Although the brothers used things to literally and intentionally sequester themselves inside their home, others use new gadgets and ''toys'' for entertainment, becoming unaware of how they're isolating themselves from reality.