★ “Following the panoramic scope of The March (2005), Doctorow creates a microcosmic and mythic tale of compulsion, alienation, and dark metamorphosis inspired by the famously eccentric Collyer brothers of New York City. Born to wealth in the 1880s, Homer and Langley became recluses and hoarders barricaded inside their Fifth Avenue brownstone, which was crammed with more than 100 tons of moldering junk. Altering facts and tinkering with time, Doctorow has Homer, who is blind, narrate with deadpan humor and spellbinding precision. Homer is devoted to music, and his brother is devoted to him, but Langley, off–kilter after a gas attack in the Great War, is beyond strange. He rebuilds a Model T in the dining room, collects everything from pianos to army surplus, and amasses newspapers to assemble a “forevermore” edition, Doctorow’s sly enactment of the fall of print and the rise of the Internet, a realm as chaotic and trash–filled as the Collyer mansion. Over the decades, people come and go —lovers, a gangster, a jazz musician, a flock of hippies, but finally Homer and Langley are irrevocably alone, prisoners in their fortress of rubbish, trapped in their warped form of brotherly love. Wizardly Doctorow presents an ingenious, haunting odyssey that unfolds within a labyrinth built out of detritus of war and excess”
★ “Doctorow, whose literary trophy shelf has got to be overflowing by now, delivers a small but sweeping masterpiece about the infamous New York hermits, the Collyer brothers. When WWI hits and the Spanish flu pandemic kills Homer and Langley’s parents, Langley, the elder, goes to war, with his Columbia education and his “godlike immunity to such an ordinary fate as death in a war.” Homer, alone and going blind, faces a world “considerably dimmed” through “more deliciously felt” by his other senses. When Langley returns, real darkness descends on the eccentric orphans: inside their shuttered Fifth Avenue mansion, Langley hoards newspaper clippings and starts innumerable science projects, each eventually abandoned, though he continues to imagine them in increasingly bizarre ways, which he then recites to Homer. Occasionally, outsiders wanter through the house, exposing it as a living museum of artifacts, Americana, obscurity and simmering madness. Doctorow’s achievement is in not undermining the dignity of two brothers who share a lush landscape built on imagination and incapacities. It’s a feat of distillation, vision and sympathy. (Sept.).”
“This brilliant, touching story takes place and is shaped by the epic events of the 20th Century — from the Jazz Age of the ’20s to the hippies of the ’60s. It is a book of profound intelligence and humanity which will delight E.L Doctorow’s many fans.”
—The Book Abyss (Australia)
“Homer and Langley, by E.L. Doctorow is a beautiful story of love between two brothers, a compact history of the changes in the world that overtakes them, and how they survive with their disabilities to rail against the outside trying to break into their sanctuary—the home that shelters them from all of life’s storms. It is one of my favorite reads of the year and one that I recommend heartily.”
—Susan K. Barton, Gather.com
“Doctorow has a tight grip on the flow of history, as evinced not only in this book but with Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, March, and a host of others. In each we get to see the individual confronting the larger issues of the era they live in. With Homer & Langley Doctorow lets the timeframe breathe out a bit, encompassing the events of nearly the entire 20th Century. It’s fun to read how the house fills up with each new invention Langley becomes enamored of, the house serving as a repository for dozens of typewriters, television sets, automobiles and computers, a museum collection in the offing. A really quick read, Homer and Langley is definitely worth the reading and one that makes me think I need to explore more of Doctorow’s works.”
From Homer & Langley
I’m Homer, the blind brother. I didn’t lose my sight all at once, it was like the movies, a slow fade out. When I was told what was happening I was interested to measure it, I was in my late teens then, keen on everything. What I did this particular winter was to stand back from the lake in Central Park where they did all their ice skating and see what I could see and couldn’t see as a day by day thing. The houses over to Central Park West went first, they got darker as if dissolving into the dark sky until I couldn’t make them out, and then the trees began to lose their shape and then finally, this was toward the end of the season, maybe it was late February of that very cold winter, and all I could see were these phantom shapes of the ice skaters floating past me on a field of ice, and then the white ice, that last light, went gray and then altogether black, and then all my sight was gone though I could hear clearly the scoot scut of the blades on the ice, a very satisfying sound, a soft sound though full of intention, a deeper tone than you’d expect made by the skate blades, perhaps for having sounded the resonant basso of the water under the ice, scoot scut, scoot scut. I would hear someone going someplace fast, and then the twirl into the long scurratch as the skater spun to a stop, and then I laughed too for the joy of that ability of the skater to come to a dead stop all at once, going along scoot scut and then scurratch.
Of course I was sad too, but it was lucky this happened to me when I was so young with no idea of being disabled, moving on in my mind to my other capacities like my exceptional hearing that I trained to a degree of alertness that was almost visual. Langley said I had ears like a bat and he tested that proposition, as he liked to subject everything to review. I was of course familiar with our house, all four storeys of it, and could navigate every room and up and down the stairs without hesitation, knowing where everything was by memory. I knew the drawing room, our father’s study, our mother’s sitting room, the dining room with its eighteen chairs and the walnut long table, the butler’s pantry and the kitchens, the parlor, the bedrooms, I remembered how many of the carpeted steps there were between the floors, I didn’t even have to hold onto the railing, you could watch me and if you didn’t know me you wouldn’t know my eyes were dead. But Langley said the true test of my hearing capacity would come when no memory was involved, so he shifted things around a bit, taking me into the music room where he had earlier rolled the grand piano around to a different corner, and had put the Japanese folding screen with the herons in water in the middle of the room and for good measure twirled me around in the doorway till my entire sense of direction was obliterated, and I had to laugh because don’t you know I walked right around that folding screen and sat down at the piano exactly as if I knew where he had put it, as I did, I could hear surfaces, and I said to Langley, a blind bat whistles, that’s the way he does it, but I didn’t have to whistle, did I? He was truly amazed, Langley is the older of us by two years, and I have always liked to impress him in whatever way I could. At this time he was already a college student in his first year at Columbia. How do you do it? he said, this is of scientific interest. I said: I feel shapes as they push the air away, or I feel heat from things, you can turn me around till I’m dizzy, but I can still tell where the air is filled in with something solid.
And there were other compensations as well. I had tutors for my education and then, of course, I was comfortably enrolled in the West End Conservatory of Music where I had been a student since my sighted years. My skill as a pianist rendered my blindness acceptable in the social world. As I grew older people spoke of my gallantry, and the girls certainly liked me. In our New York society of those days, one parental means of assuring a daughter’s marriage to a suitable husband was to warn her, from birth it seemed, to watch out for men and to not quite trust them. This was well before the Great War, when the days of the flapper and women smoking cigarettes and drinking martinis were in the unimaginable future. So a handsome young blind man of reputable family was particularly attractive insofar as he could not, even in secret, do anything untoward. His helplessness was very alluring to a woman trained since birth, herself, to be helpless. It made her feel strong, in command, it could bring out her sense of pity, it could do lots of things, my sightlessness. She could express herself, give herself to her pent up feelings, as she could not safely do with a normal fellow. I dressed very well, I could shave myself with my straight razor and never nick the skin, and at my instructions the barber kept my hair a bit longer than it was being worn in that day, so that when at some gathering I sat at the piano and played the Appassionata, for instance, or the Revolutionary Etude, my hair would fly about—I had a lot of it then, a good thick mop of brown hair parted in the middle and coming down each side of my head. Franz Lisztian hair is what it was. And if we were sitting on a sofa and no one was about, a young lady friend might kiss me, touch my face and kiss me, and I, being blind, could put my hand on her thigh without seeming to have that intention, and so she might gasp, but would leave it there for fear of embarrassing me.
Excerpted from Homer & Langley by E. L. Doctorow Copyright © 2012 by E.L. Doctorow. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.