Homer and Langley, by E.L. Doctorow
When I lived in Glasgow, my local library had a section dedicated to the quirky and alternative books. This is quite a broad genre, and thus it included anything from Proust to Vonnegut to Bukowski. One day, on a whim, I picked up The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow, which was a fictionalised story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, told from the point of view of their son years after their executions. I really enjoyed that, so when by chance I saw Homer and Langley in my new local library, I was quite keen to read it.
To say that now I wish I hadn’t would be a bit of an exaggeration, but it definitely failed to live up to my hopes. Like The Book of Daniel, Homer and Langley is a fictionalised take on a true story, this time the titular Collyer Brothers, a pair of reclusive hoarders who apparently became something of local celebrities in Harlem in the first half of the 20th Century. Extending their lives into the ’70s, rather than the ending them in the ’40s, Doctorow manages to paint an interesting picture of the major societal changes that took place between in the decades after the First World War.
Except he doesn’t really. Aside from a brief involvement with the burgeoning Harlem Jazz movement, and the Japanese Internments of the Second World War, The only time that the brothers interact with the rest of the world in any meaningful sense is during the 60s when they unwittingly become gurus to a crowd of hippies that reads much more like a parody than with any sense of
You do get a sense of the degradation of their lives over the years; Homer goes blind within the first few pages, and not long after that, Langley is victim of a mustard gas attack on the western front, around about the time that their parents fall victim to the Spanish Flu. They then spend the next 60 years accumulating tonnes of junk and clutter, slowly but inexorably filling their town house to the brim. Except, you don’t really get a sense of this for most of the book. As the narrator, Homer, is blind, it’s forgivable that there are perhaps not visual descriptions of the clutter, but the ease with which he describes his movements within the house don’t really give an indication of a living space full of old newspapers, pianos, typewriters, plant pots, bikes, motor cars and all manner of other flotsam and jetsam. At times there are passing references, but until the final chapters, I just didn’t get a feel for their defining gimmick through the text.
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe Doctorow wasn’t aiming for this as the main thrust of his novel and I’ve missed the point of the book. But still, in comparison to the depths and subtleties of the Book of Daniel, Homer and Langley just doesn’t even come close.