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E. L. Doctorow
Homer & Langley
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2009

Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-1-4000-6494-6
Publication Date: 09-01-2009
208 Pages; $26
Date Reviewed: 11-07-2009

Index:  General Fiction

"I'm Homer, the blind brother." From the first sentence, E. L. Doctorow tells the reader that the vision in his latest novel, 'Homer & Langley,' will be ... limited. The world, however, is unlimited and Doctorow's own vision of Homer and Langley Collyer brings the world into the dream-like lives of New York's most famous recluses. For all that Homer is indeed blind, his descent into blindness eloquently evoked in the opening paragraph, his experience of the American 20th century is nothing less than visionary. Doctorow's novel engagingly condenses the American experience and parades it through the rooms of two troubled men who tend to keep more things than they throw away. This is where disposable culture comes to rot.

While the true stories, the clinical facts, of the Collyer Brothers' story are quite incredible, they are also not so large as the myth these men became, and Doctorow writes of the latter, not the former. Untethered by the fact of fiction, Doctorow's story at first keeps close to reality, but soon enough the men become myth and it is the American myth that is the subject of Doctorow's novel. Even though the Collyer Brothers rarely leave their increasingly-crowded apartments (Langley is an obsessive hoarder) to see the America they've inherited as the final scions of an American family, America, its seems, is intent on parading through their living room.

This then becomes the plot of the novel, which extends the brothers' lives some forty or fifty years beyond their actual lives. In doing so, Doctorow gives himself the luxury of looking at the history of America from just before the First World War until sometime after Vietnam. The feat here is that Doctorow packs as much stuff into his novel as the Collyer Brothers did into their apartments, but manages to condense and not just crowd his narrative with bric-a-brac. There's not a spare comma or period in the entire novel, which feels powerful and flowing.

Doctorow's prose is largely elegiac except when it is by turns sweet and funny as serves the situation. Like America itself, Doctorow's Collyer brothers get up to quite a bit of mischief in 20th century. Flappers, beats, poets, hippies, businessmen, gangsters, every manner of man or woman who might have lent their character to the American landscape strolls through the Collyer Brothers' living room.

The brothers themselves are entertainingly crabby when they're not sweet, smart or following some oddball-obsession. Langley is manic and often worried about money when he's not spending it maniacally. Homer keeps an even keel as contrasted with the more flamboyant Langley. But their relationship is the core of the story. Doctorow writes with elegance and precision even as he winds down Homer's life in a tragic fade-out. It's a powerful vision for a character who is blind.

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