E.L. Doctorow on the hoarders "Homer and Langley"
By Dylan Foley
In his new novel, "Homer and Langley," E.L. Doctorow takes on the eccentric lives of the Collyer brothers, two sons of a famous New York family who died trapped in a decrepit Fifth Avenue mansion full of junk in 1947.
Narrated by an elderly, crippled Homer, as he sits in the house waiting to die, the short novel is a darkly comic story of the relationship between the reclusive two brothers. Doctorow hijacks the historical account, making Langley a gassed World War I veteran and Homer a blind musician. As young men, the brothers go to speakeasies and sleep with women, but they become progressively more bitter and paranoid, shutting out the world.
"I was a teenager when the Collyer brothers died," said Doctorow in an telephone interview from his New York City office. "Their house was razed, and a park named after them was put in its place. Six or seven years ago, I read that people were protesting that the park name should be changed, that the Collyer brothers' story was a blight on the community. They had become part of the folklore, part of the myth."
Doctorow took the basic framework on the Collyers' brothers lives but made them live another 40 years, making them witnesses to the Roaring '20s, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the turmoil of the 1960s and the 1980s bloodletting in the U.S.- financed wars in Central America.
At 78, Doctorow is one of America's literary lions, having written such masterpieces as "The Book of Daniel," "Ragtime" and "The March." The novelist rebuilt the Collyers' story to make it his own. "I did no research," admitted Doctorow. "I looked at some photos. I moved some things around. The story came out in the first sentence, like all books do: 'I am Homer, the blind brother,' and that was it."
For Doctorow, the Collyers were refuseniks who decided not to play society's games. "The Collyer brothers had opted out," he said. "The father was an eminent women's doctor. The mother was socially connected. The brothers shut the shutters and locked the doors. I wanted to know what happened and what was behind it. These questions meant breaking into their minds and their house. That's how 'Homer and Langley' was written."
(Scene from the Collyer brothers' dilapidated mansion)
The older brother, Langley, is obsessed with collecting newspapers and junk, and the house fills up over the decades, so much so that the two inmates can hardly move. Doctorow makes them stationary observers of the changing times. With the doomed brothers stuck in a booby-trapped mansion with 100 tons of junk, Doctorow explores their twisted psyches with his lyrical prose.
Langley's eccentric projects include reading and clipping numerous newspapers over 50 years to create an eternally up-to-date newspaper, compiling thousands of articles. "I gave him a bitter vision that he had had since he was gassed in World War I," said Doctorow. "He had a sharp temper and was very angry. With the newspapers, he was an aggregator. Think of Langley as Google."
Reviews of "Homer and Langley" have seen the Collyers' hoarding as Doctorow's wry commentary on Americans' excessive acquisition of things. In reality, the writer leaves interpretation up to his readers.
"This is where my job ends," said Doctorow with a gentle chuckle over the quest for definitive meaning in the reviews. "I write the books, and other people tell me what my books mean. When you are writing a book, you are living with these people. You don't think about meaning, references or allegories."
(NYPD officers in the Collyer brothers mansion in 1947)
After he finished the novel, Doctorow realized that Homer and Langley were on their own unique trip, while never leaving their decrepit mansion. He also found himself haunted by the brothers.
"I do think of the Collyer brothers as curators of their lives and times," said Doctorow. "The book is almost like a road novel, but Homer and Langley don't move. The road moves through them.
"I realized halfway though the novel that the brothers are having a lifelong conversation. They may not always agree with one another, but they have the kind of conversation that equals travel over long distances. In a sense, it is a housebound picaresque. It's a hermetic odyssey. These guys are still with me. Often when I finish a book, that's it with the characters, but Homer and Langley linger in my mind."
Doctorow has been married to the same woman for more than 50 years, has moved house many times and has three children. When asked if he had his own Collyer brother tendencies, he was momentarily stumped.
"How does one answer this question?" he asked. "When I was a teenager in the Bronx, I am sure that I was not the only boy who had his mother look into his room and say, 'My god, the Collyer brothers live here!' A number of years back, I donated my papers to the Fales Library at New York University," noting that yards of papers and numerous boxes left his house. "I must admit my wife was ecstatic."
Dylan Foley is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.