by E.L. Doctorow
E.L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley is a historical fiction novel based on the lives of real-life brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer, Manhattan eccentrics who gained unwanted publicity during the Depression era. Taking considerable liberties with history, Doctorow has created a rich collage of 20th century Americana, presenting the brothers as ambassadors of culture in a way, rich treasures tucked away in obscurity, observers of history but not necessarily non-participants.
Homer—the younger brother and narrator of the story—and Langley are the only sons of a wealthy couple who pass away in the young mens’ adolescence, leaving them a spacious Fifth Avenue home. Due to a genetic affliction, Homer has lost his eyesight in his teens. Langley, meanwhile, comes home from the first World War in the wake of his parents’ deaths, greatly changed from the boy that left. Homer—blind and deeply self-conscious—and Langley—stricken with insanity from being gassed in the war—begin to slowly but surely shut themselves off from the outside world.
This doesn’t happen all at once. The hermit lifestyle evolves over time as Homer sinks deeper into loneliness and resignation and Langley literally constructs the walls to his own prison as he amasses a veritable junkyard of knick knacks and possessions that he can never seem to get rid of. Over the years they invite dozens of unique personalities into their home; gangsters, prostitutes, flappers, jazz musicians, and—for a brief period in the sixties—a bevy of hippies that float in and out of the brothers’ lives. They experience a wide range of American life—the evolution of pop music, unrequited love, techonological advance, the pain of losing a loved one in the war, organized crime risen from the Great Depression, McCarthyism and fear-mongering, antiwar protest, a battle with the taxman—before they eventually shutter their windows from the world.
Doctorow has done a wonderful job creating vibrant personalities for two notorious hermits that make them seem endearing and genuine; their motivations for retreating from society are well-defined and relatable. I felt moved by their plights at times and frustrated by their inability to connect at others. Their journey which spans many decades yet never moves beyond the confines of their home is very moving and the way Homer narrates his life tale, addressing a mystery woman named Jacqueline, gives the reader hope that—before the end of his life—Homer finally finds the type of love and companionship he has been seeking his whole life.
... Except that’s not what happens at all!
In a cruel twist, it turns out the oft-mentioned but yet unseen Jacqueline is simply a writer that Homer met once and had a nice afternoon with then never saw again. He constructed an imaginary life with her as he did several other women before her, and deluded himself into believing she would come back for him. Instead, Homer and Langley die, separate and alone, entombed and literally suffocated by their amassed possessions.
I waited patiently for things to turn around for the Collyer brothers but it wasn’t until I read the final few pages and put the book down that I realized I wasn’t going to be getting any sort of uplifting ending. I felt cheated; surely their symbolic suffering would come to an end, surely it meant something, but instead I just felt like chucking the book at the wall.
I didn’t think about the book again for some days but then I sat down to write this review and finally looked up the real-life Collyer brothers, of whom I knew nothing... and it turns out Doctorow’s invented history is actually the optimistic version of the story. Go figure.
Doctorow’s story can pass for truth because not too much is actually known about the reclusive brothers. In the fictionalized story, Homer’s blindness and Langley’s insanity become metaphorical walls between them and the world, a complement their literal walls. In reality, Homer (actually the older of the two in real life) became blind in his forties, and Langley moved in to care for him. Their parents didn’t die young, they didn’t host tea dances and jazz music sessions or put up their house like a hostel to young hippies. They didn’t even live to see the sixties and they never let anyone in anyway. Homer and Langley—the real Homer and Langley—died in 1947, the former of starvation and heart disease, the latter of asphyxiation, smothered by his own hoarded objects. Their deaths were probably painful and terrifying and they were alone, but together in the same house.
So at least Doctorow got that part right.
I don’t blame him for trying to make things seem sunnier. In the author’s version of things, Homer and Langley lived exuberant lives that intertwined with many unforgettable characters. It’s nice to think they experienced life from behind those walls. The more likely reality—that the Collyer brothers were hermits of their own design, afraid and resentful of the outside world all the way to their tragic ends—is a much less interesting story. If I had known the details of their true demise, I probably wouldn’t have resented Doctorow’s ending so much, as it mirrored the truth.
Still, when you take as many liberties as Doctorow has, you might as well fabricate a happy ending as well. Maybe Jacqueline did come back for Homer after all... Just maybe...