Homer and Langley Collyer, two human relics from Edith Wharton’s New York, became legendary in late Spring of 1947 when they were discovered dead in their decaying Harlem town house on upper Fifth Avenue, immured behind a reported hundred tons of carefully hoarded debris. Most of that tonnage comprised books, as well as magazines and newspapers from as far back as a quarter century, stacked ceiling high to create a maze of tunnels, culs-de-sac, and trip-wired booby traps—one of which had collapsed on Langley, killing him. (Homer, the first brother to be found, died of apparent starvation; Langley’s rat-nibbled body was discovered sixteen days later, although it was only several feet from where Homer had been.) In the weeks it took to empty the town house, the authorities disinterred fourteen pianos and numerous other instruments (Langley was an accomplished musician), an early X-ray machine, kerosene heaters, baby carriages, twenty thousand dollars in cash, securities and jewelry, thirty-four bank-account passbooks, a canoe that their physician father had used to commute down the East River to his office at Bellevue, parts of a Ford Model T that the brothers had tried to use as a generator. (You might call them a heavy metal variation on Big Edie and Little Edie Beale of Grey Gardens fame.) For years, they had waged bureaucratic war against the utility companies, the police, fire, and sanitation departments, the banks, and the tax collectors, becoming neighborhood legends often reported on in the press, until the silence and the stench forced the authorities to storm the barricaded doors and windows. Sixty years on, the grisly incident remains every New Yorker’s nightmare of what’s going on at the neighbor’s place.
E. L. Doctorow, one of our living American literary treasures and an unequaled excavator and reanimator of our history, has taken imaginative possession of the Collyer brothers for his latest novel, Homer & Langley. It is not hard to see why this baroque landmark of urban folklore should pique the interest of creative writers; many more questions than answers hover around it. In 1954, Marcia Davenport produced a luridly Freudian middlebrow potboiler, My Brother’s Keeper, a best seller that Time mocked for “draw[ing] on the pap of fact and melodrama.” In 2002, the respected playwright Richard Greenberg dramatized the tale in The Dazzle, seeing the brothers as possessors of yet another set of disturbed beautiful minds. For Doctorow, however, the Collyers are in perfect sync with his taste in subject matter, usually of New York origin and in equipoise between the mythic and the historical—his novelistic comfort zone. At the end of the book, Homer keens, “For what could be more terrible than being turned into a mythic joke? How could we cope, once dead and gone, with no one available to reclaim our history?” Homer & Langley turns that joke into an almost metaphysical critique of American life and a kind of stationary urban picaresque with allegorical overtones.
That Doctorow is after bigger literary game than mere representation is clear from the first sentence: “I’m Homer, the blind brother.” After the epic exertions and wide-angled expansiveness of his previous novel, 2005’s The March, about Sherman’s scorched-earth devastation of the South in the Civil War, he’s taken a sharp swerve into the physical and psychic interior. Rather than the vibrant tableaux vivants of American history that graced his gloriously syncopated Ragtime (1974), Homer & Langley comes across as a somber Harlem nocturne, narrated in a minor key and with the slightly fussy diction of the genteel nineteenth century. (“Oh, but this is a sad tale I have wandered into.”) Some readers may experience mild impatience with Homer’s slow and steady account of a purposeful retreat from the world unless they are alert to Doctorow’s deeper purpose: to enlist the brothers in the company of the great refuseniks of the American Renaissance: Melville’s Bartleby, Hawthorne’s Wakefield (Doctorow last year published a short story in the New Yorker updating that tale to suburban New Jersey), Thoreau’s Thoreau. In this version, the Collyer brothers become neither cranks nor eccentrics, but naysayers and preferers-not-to in the gnarly American grain—“principled separatists,” as Homer puts it, the terms of whose existence constitute a critique of American life.
Homer & Langley departs freely from the known facts about the brothers where it suits the author’s purposes, in one instance spectacularly so. It has Homer being blind from his teenage years when in actual fact his blindness came on in his middle years; and it switches the brothers’ professions, presenting Homer as the long-haired musician and Langley as the lawyer, when the truth was the opposite. What Doctorow gains from this is that Homer’s preternaturally acute and musically trained ear lends some marvelous stylistic touches to the narration. (Hear the lovely grace notes of “the scoot scut of the blades on the ice . . . scoot scut and then scurratch” as Homer renders his apprehension of ice skaters.) And Langley’s legally trained mind becomes the instrument whereby he makes his case against the universe. He returns as a veteran of the carnage of World War I “lung-shot” from mustard gas and permanently embittered by what he has done and seen. He begins to amass newspapers in the spirit of taking depositions in his attempt to prove the absence of any progress in or larger purpose to the world—“to systematize his grim view of life.” This “single newspaper” or “Collyer’s One Edition for All Time” takes on an almost Borgesian (or do I mean Googlian?) dimension, and of course there is the dark circumstance that this omnium-gatherum of newsprint in the end killed him. The mechanistic view of the world’s lack of meaning that Langley’s word hoard is meant to bolster is similar to the ironic pessimism of such homegrown misanthropes and nihilists as Henry Adams and Ambrose Bierce.
Doctorow contrives, with a certain amount of strain on his plot and occasionally the reader’s credulity, to turn the Collyer town house into a stage for a highly selective pageant of American history in the twentieth century. To do so requires his most fanciful conceit: that the brothers somehow survived into our own time before their demise. In the course of the book, a series of figures meant to illustrate, as the textbooks put it, the main currents of American history arrive and depart. They include a young Irish immigrant girl who becomes a nun and is slain by a death squad in Central America, the jazz-playing grandson of their black cook who becomes a mechanic for the Tuskegee Airmen and is killed in North Africa, a wounded mobster on the lam who holes up in the town house for a time with his gang, a pair of Japanese-American servants who are hunted down by the FBI and sent away to an internment camp, corrupt cops shaking down the brothers for holding tea dances, a radical lover of Langley’s who is deported by boat to Russia, and so on. As these examples make clear, Doctorow’s loyalty to the Popular Front worldview, of which he is the last extant literary avatar, remains undiminished, as does his passion for social justice. One extended hippie idyll after the brothers leave their home to attend an antiwar rally in Central Park plays like an unconvincing uptown production of Hair, and having Homer quote from Robert Lowell’s Life Studies struck me as unlikely.
The last muse from the American Renaissance to preside over Homer & Langley is of course Poe, as Homer begins to go deaf as well as blind and the horror of their isolation mounts. Doctorow underplays the Fall of the House of Collyer, eschewing Grand Guignol for a quiet desperation that is very twentieth century in its tenor. “There are moments when I cannot bear this unremitting consciousness. It knows only itself.” Finis.
Toward the end of the book, the French journalist to whom Homer is addressing this account tells him, “Words have music, and if you are a musician you will write to hear them.” From The Book of Daniel (1971) and Ragtime to Homer & Langley, Doctorow has demonstrated an exceptional ear for the music, both literal and internal, of whatever era he has chosen to inhabit and for the American language in all its registers. With Updike and Mailer departed, he and Philip Roth stand neck and neck for the title of Most Exemplary Literary Career. Doctorow has arrived at his position in a less flashy manner, with no late-breaking bulletins on his own mortality and with a capacious, generous, and penetrating vision of American society that he continues to expand. As sure as Derek Jeter is headed to the Hall of Fame, the novels of Doctorow, Homer & Langley included, are destined for Library of America editions, and for the same reasons: because of their accomplishments in their respective fields and because of the class with which they accomplished them.
Gerald Howard is an executive editor at Doubleday, which is a division of the same corporation as the Random House imprint.