Cassy's Reviews > Homer & Langley

Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow
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Oct 20, 2009

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bookshelves: 2009, physical-own, fiction-general, event-met-author
Recommended to Cassy by: Houston's Inprint Reading Series
Read in October, 2009 , read count: 1

I was lucky enough to attend a lecture by E. L. Doctorow where he read from “Homer and Langley” and was interviewed onstage. He joked that the story of the Collyer brothers had become an American myth and that, as with all myths, one does not need to research, only interpret.

This book is essentially the rambling of an old, blind man, Homer as he reflects back on his life spent with his trusty brother, Langley in their family’s mansion in New York City. The book doesn’t have chapters or parts. It’s just one long retrospect – flowing from one event to the next in a roughly chronological fashion. Sounds pretty standard, right? What gives this book an edge is that these two main characters are bizarre compulsive hoarders. Even more interesting, these characters, their legendary accumulation of junk and their news-worthy deaths are based on actual people and events. Sure, Doctorow took some liberties with the story (remember, he was "interpreting"), but the basic premise, in all its absurdity, is true. And honestly, if the book did not have this anchor in reality, I would have had a hard time surrendering to the story.

Most of the time I didn’t know how to react to the text. Sometimes I’d take it seriously – trying to understand Langley’s theories. Sometimes I was overwhelmed with pity, because Doctorow does a great job of showing their gradual degradation and making these two weirdoes likeable. Sometimes I remained judgmental of all the nonconforming behavior and filth. Sometimes I just had to laugh - while wondering if it was wrong to be laughing. After joining the audience's laughter at several of Doctorow’s jokes and witty comments, I think this is what he intended – especially when Langley assembles an actual car in the dining room.

Given all my conflicting engagements with the book, I was eager for answers. My number one question was about placing the book in a genre. Alas, Doctorow eschewed the interviewer’s question about picking a genre for his works. He said he doesn’t like how people keep sticking adjectives in front of his title as a novelist. It is fine, he said, if people want to describe him as a historical novelist, a post-modern novelist, or whatever else. But he’s not going to help them in their categorization or even pay them much mind. Overall, his response was thoughtful, but I am still vaguely unsatisfied. Maybe I'm just a labeling freak.

Doctorow also said that Homer’s voice came very easily to him as he wrote. It shows. He does an admirable job of describing Homer’s blindness and all the sounds of life. I would say that this book does for sound what Patrick Süskind's Perfume did for smell. Since I am comparing books, it also reminds me of Pete Hamill’s Forever in that it shows the changing tides of New York City and even America. Yet Doctorow’s book is faster and more enjoyable than Hamill’s.

Thankfully, this is a very quick read. Doctorow was wise to keep in short, because I don’t think I could have handled much more; it's hard to read about characters wasting away in complete grime and isolation. And man, what a great, understated last paragraph.

Overall, I appreciate the musical style of the writing and the unique perspective it offers. I only gave it three stars, because I prefer plot-driven stories over montages. But I would recommend it to others.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Leonardo (new)

Leonardo Duenas-Osorio I liked your review overall, although I was unsure how to interpret your parallels with Perfume and Forever. Are the comparisons simply related to the sense of smell and place? Or are there any implicit comparisons regarding writing quality and style?


message 2: by Cassy (last edited Oct 26, 2009 02:13PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Cassy I compared the book to "Perfume", because both books place an emphasis on a sense - hearing and smells. You KNOW that I am not fond of "Perfume", but my better half gives Suskind credit for describing smells so well. "Homer and Langley" is not centered around Homer's blindness, but he describes the condition well - how Homer gets around by sensing where the air was occupied by furniture and how he creates a picture of people by the sounds they make when they walk.

As for the comparison to "Forever": both books span a long period of time in NYC and highlight important points in the city's history. In "Forever", you read about the revolutionary war, slavery, 911, etc. (Remember the main guy was immortal - so he saw centuries worth of events.) In "Homer and Langley", the brothers see the two World Wars, the Prohibition, the reign of the mob bosses, hippies, and such.

Umm - it is interesting that I compared "Homer and Langley" to two books that I didn't particularly like. I do like Doctorow's book! He succeeded in lots of ways that Suskind and Hamill went wrong.


message 3: by Leonardo (new)

Leonardo Duenas-Osorio Thank you for the clarification, and the more explicit contrasts. As I read your review again, I was then curious about what did you intended to say with Doctorow's "musical style", and your interpretation of his work as "montages".


message 4: by Cassy (last edited Oct 21, 2009 01:09PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Cassy I honestly wasn't sure what adjective to use for his writing style. I started off with "poetic" and then switched to "musical", because I had liked when the interviewer used this adjective. I guess what I really mean to say is that his prose flows beautifully. It's simple, but not overly so. It's causal, but still impressed me with its fluidity and moments of beauty. Does that make any sense?

Doctorow himself described the book as a montage. I think he mentioned this because the book highlights different scenes in Homer's life, i.e. from "the flow of time" as Doctorow put it. And their selection was just what stood out to an elder Homer as he looked back - whichever moments had made a big impression. In terms of how a literary professor would define a montage, I couldn't say.


Charlie George Excellent review. I appear to be the only Goodreader to categorize this work as "memoir", even though it is written entirely, start to finish, in the form of a memoir. Granted, it is 95% fiction, but I think it still ought to count!


Cassy Thanks, Charlie! I never would have thought of the memoir category. That's interesting! Certainly complicates my labeling dilemma.


message 7: by David (new)

David James Doctorow, E L. Homer & Langley
I have come from reading several genre novels to what I love best - a literary novel, the kind of book you don’t rush through, but relish each word. Here Homer the blind narrator takes a break from his piano to recall times when playing for silent movies he would be assisted by sixteen-year-old Mary: 'She was a brave but wounded thing, legally an orphan. We were in loco parentis, and always would be. She had her own room on the top floor next to Siobhan's and I would think of her sleeping there, chaste and beautiful, and wonder if the Catholics were not right in deifying virginity and if Mary's parents had not been wise in conferring on her frail beauty the protective name of the mother of their God.'
This passage takes on greater poignancy when years later Homer hears of her fate as a missionary in Africa. By that time he has fallen for Jacqueline, a French reporter who saves him from being run over in New York. Unlike his elder brother Langley, an embittered and paranoid survivor from gas attacks in the Great War, Homer pretty much accepts the world of crime and corruption he finds around him at the time of the Depression. Both damaged bachelors live in a decaying house off Fifth Avenue, within sight of Central Park. While Homer writes and plays the piano, Langley fills the house with junk and embarks on the project of compiling the ultimate newspaper. To which end he buys all the daily papers and collates reports of murder, rape, robbery and scandal.
As is his wont Doctorow bases his fiction on historical fact. Homer and Langley Collyer were a fabled pair of New York recluses whose crumbling mansion housed piles of junk, a dismantled car in the living room and rats in the woodwork, and whose visitors included policemen, prostitutes and hoodlums. Doctorow even extends their lives into the Hippy period, where the pair meet Flower Child approval. Although deprived of mains services, winter is welcomed as a bastion against teenage vandalism, the young stone-throwers then being confined indoors. The book ends sadly with Homer writing on a newly scavenged braille typewriter ‘with only the touch of my brother’s hand to know that I am not alone.’ But this downbeat note is perfectly pitched and the novel’s heroes earn our respect and even admiration for defying the safe and relatively secure world of civilized society.


Doctorow, E L. Homer & Langley
I have come from reading several genre novels to what I love best - a literary novel, the kind of book you don’t rush through, but relish each word. Here Homer the blind narrator takes a break from his piano to recall times when playing for silent movies he would be assisted by sixteen-year-old Mary: 'She was a brave but wounded thing, legally an orphan. We were in loco parentis, and always would be. She had her own room on the top floor next to Siobhan's and I would think of her sleeping there, chaste and beautiful, and wonder if the Catholics were not right in deifying virginity and if Mary's parents had not been wise in conferring on her frail beauty the protective name of the mother of their God.'
This passage takes on greater poignancy when years later Homer hears of her fate as a missionary in Africa. By that time he has fallen for Jacqueline, a French reporter who saves him from being run over in New York. Unlike his elder brother Langley, an embittered and paranoid survivor from gas attacks in the Great War, Homer pretty much accepts the world of crime and corruption he finds around him at the time of the Depression. Both damaged bachelors live in a decaying house off Fifth Avenue, within sight of Central Park. While Homer writes and plays the piano, Langley fills the house with junk and embarks on the project of compiling the ultimate newspaper. To which end he buys all the daily papers and collates reports of murder, rape, robbery and scandal.
As is his wont Doctorow bases his fiction on historical fact. Homer and Langley Collyer were a fabled pair of New York recluses whose crumbling mansion housed piles of junk, a dismantled car in the living room and rats in the woodwork, and whose visitors included policemen, prostitutes and hoodlums. Doctorow even extends their lives into the Hippy period, where the pair meet Flower Child approval. Although deprived of mains services, winter is welcomed as a bastion against teenage vandalism, the young stone-throwers then being confined indoors. The book ends sadly with Homer writing on a newly scavenged braille typewriter ‘with only the touch of my brother’s hand to know that I am not alone.’ But this downbeat note is perfectly pitched and the novel’s heroes earn our respect and even admiration for defying the safe and relatively secure world of civilized society.


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