Monday, August 29, 2011
Book Review: Homer & Langley
Homer & Langley (Random House) by E. L. Doctorow is an engaging novel about two brothers, one blind and the other suffering the effects of mustard gas during the Great War.
The narrator of the story, Homer, blind since childhood, develops a highly self-sufficient way of getting around, depending on sounds, smells and the sense of closeness to objects. He is musically gifted and for awhile is the piano accompaniment for silent movies at a local movie theater. His brother Langley goes off to war and the Spanish flu takes first one parent, then the other. Left alone in the Fifth Avenue mansion with no one but servants, Homer manages to settle the estate and awaits his brother’s return.
Langley’s return, however, is filled with tragedy. He’s physically and mentally altered. The mustard gas has left horrific scars and damaged his vocal chords, changing his voice from a clear tenor to a rasping whisper. He’s left with bitterness and distrust toward the government and society.
The Collyer brothers live as recluses in their once grand mansion. Langley becomes obsessed with collecting things–newspapers, cast-off clothes, furniture, old TV’s. The mansion is filled with useless relics. Although the word “hoarder” is never used, that is, indeed what Langley becomes.
Homer at times craves romance, but loyalty to his brother and his own limitations discourage lasting relationships.
The novel covers several decades, and the reader follows society’s changes through the constant barrage of people streaming through the Collyer home: immigrants, prostitutes, gangsters, jazz musicians, hippies–they all become a part of the intricate web that forms the Collyer household.
Homer & Langley is a fascinating story, combining Homer’s insightfulness and blindness with Langley’s eccentric but brilliant idealism. The novel introduces points of view that I’d never considered. It’s beautiful yet haunting characters will stay with me for a long time.