Published September 2009 by Random House
I’ve been trying to write a concise summary of this book for several days now, and I think it’s time to admit that it surpasses my descriptive abilities (or at least my review-writing mojo) at this time. So here’s a description from the publisher:
Homer and Langley Collyer are brothers–the one blind and deeply intuitive, the other damaged into madness, or perhaps greatness, by mustard gas in the Great War. They live as recluses in their once grand Fifth Avenue mansion, scavenging the city streets for things they think they can use, hoarding the daily newspapers as research for Langley’s proposed dateless newspaper whose reportage will be as prophecy. Yet the epic events of the century play out in the lives of the two brothers–wars, political movements, technological advances–and even though they want nothing more than to shut out the world, history seems to pass through their cluttered house in the persons of immigrants, prostitutes, society women, government agents, gangsters, jazz musicians . . . and their housebound lives are fraught with odyssean peril as they struggle to survive and create meaning for themselves.
Simply put, Homer & Langley is one of the best books I read in 2009. There are just so many wonderful things about it.
Let’s start with Doctorow’s handling of the passage of time. As Homer and Langley become increasingly reclusive, we see them encountering and examining the world and its events as outsiders rather than active participants. They hole up in their mansion and watch as life goes on, seemingly without them. As the narrative moves through time, Doctorow never tells us what year it is…because he doesn’t have to. When Homer and Langley go socializing at a local speakeasy and make a regrettable friendship with a mobster named Vincent, we know they’re living through Prohibition. As they make a name for themselves charging low admission to tea dances in their home, we know it’s the Depression era. Nazis on the news? Yep, it’s World War II. Hippies communing in the park and protesting the next big war? You guessed it–Vietnam.
Doctorow does this so gracefully, allowing Homer to be informed about what’s going on in the world by Langley, who learns it all from his newspapers (and eventually television), that the reader becomes accustomed to simply knowing where the story is in time without having to think about it. There is great irony in the fact that Homer and Langley become more knowledgeable than most about the world and cultural events by becoming separated from it, and this generally seems to work for them, but when they do let people in, Homer realizes that their separateness is not quite all it’s cracked up to be.
Having all those people around led me to understand that our habitual reclusion was needful.
Doctorow uses his characters and their opinions about major cultural events to comment on American society and notable eras in our history and to make pointed critiques. While he is kind to his characters, he does not spare them from his critical eye, either, using them and their failure to connect to illustrate an important lesson—in this case, one learned too late—about humans’ need for each other.
Initially described to me as a book about two brothers who are compulsive hoarders, Homer & Langley is unmistakably about the search for meaning and the many ways we try to give weight to our presence on the planet. Most of us do this by forging relationships with others. Homer and Langley do it by accumulating things, objects that make them feel connected to the world but allow them to keep their distance. They encounter these objects all the time, and as their home fills up with newspapers, a broken-down Model T that occupies an entire room, and other unspeakable clutter, we begin to understand that because they cannot point to relationships that give their lives meaning, Homer and Langley use their accumulation of things—as many things as possible—to insist to the world that they, too, exist. After all, those things certainly have remarkable presence in their lives.
It was our legacy, Langley’s and mine, this sense of living with things assertively inanimate, and having to walk around them.
So, Homer and Langley essentially become inanimate as well. They are the topic of conversation, the object of news articles, and a source of fascination. Their front porch is occasionally a tourist destination. Time marches forward, but they are just as immobile as the old Model T, that relic from their past that travels with them into the future, the symbolic vehicle of their stasis.
It was our immovable possession, an inescapable condition of our lives, sunk to its wheel rims but risen from its debris as if unearthed, an industrial mummy.
Reading this, one can’t help but wonder if that is how Homer and Langley will one day be found.
And now, because I know I’m rambling as I so often tend to do about books I truly love, just a few words about the writing. Because oh, the writing is phenomenal. Doctorow’s use of a blind narrator is simply genius. Homer encounters the mansion and its increasing clutter through his other senses. He bumps into objects or hears them fall upon each other. He listens to the news but cannot see the images. He detects Langley’s approach by listening for his footfalls. And he gets to know a woman by placing his hands upon her face.
Doctorow uses words sparingly and has a remarkable economy of language. Avoiding excessive description, he is artfully succinct and succeeds in giving Homer a most suitable voice and keeping the narrative perfectly taut. As Homer ages and his hearing fails, Doctorow’s descriptions become even more sparing, allowing the reader to experience Homer’s isolation firsthand, for he realizes he will have “only my own consciousness to amuse me.”
I could write volumes more about Homer & Langley, but instead I will take a page from Doctorow’s book and tell you that is a quiet, thoughtful, creatively drawn examination of society, humanity, and the search for meaning, and I certainly hope you will give it a shot….and if nothing else, it will make lovely clutter on your TBR pile. 4.75 out of 5.