History accumulates in E.L. Doctorow’s novel about the Collyer brothers.
They are the watchword for home organizers everywhere, patron saints of pack rats, and so synonymous with clutter that they have a syndrome named after them. They’ve been fictionalized in more than 10 novels since their deaths, with homages in everything from television’s “Monk” to Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot.”
(I’ve always thought of Shel Silverstein’s “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout,” who would not take the garbage out, as a sort of rhyming progeny.) But beyond the squalor they died in, most people don’t know much about the Collyer brothers.
Multiple award-winning author E.L. Doctorow (“Ragtime,” “The March”) brings his prodigious abilities to combine history and fiction to bear on one of New York’s most famous urban legends in his new novel, Homer & Langley. The “Grey Gardens” girls got their own A-list miniseries this spring, and A&E just launched the new reality series, “Hoarders,” last month, so public fascination with both wealthy, troubled scions and obsessive compulsive disorder does not appear to be on the wane.
Typically, while reading a Doctorow novel, one battles the urge to create spreadsheets to keep track of all the characters. But “Homer & Langley” features none of his trademark interwoven plots. In fact, the setup is almost deceptively simple: Homer, by now trapped in one room, taps out their life story on his Braille typewriter. As Homer chronicles his youth as a blind piano prodigy and his brother’s stint in World War I – health and possibly mind broken by mustard gas – American history, a perennial Doctorow concern, begins to permeate through the broken bits and piles of newspapers Langley lugs home.
Their parents were also magpies, and the boys inherited a home already stuffed with luxurious furniture and artifacts. “It was all very eclectic, being a record of sorts of our parents’ travels, and cluttered it might have seemed to outsiders, but it seemed normal and right to us....”
Doctorow catalogs the stuff Langley obsessively brings home. “It was as if the times blew through our house like a wind, and these were the things deposited here by the winds of war,” Homer observes.
Authors differ as to how acceptable it is to veer widely from known facts when choosing to write about real people. For his part, Doctorow plays fast and loose with the timeline of the men’s lives – giving them several extra decades in the family’s crumbling Fifth Avenue mansion, so they get a chance to witness the rise of the counterculture movement (the hippies find them rather sweet) and the moon landing.
He also kills off both parents during the 1918 flu (some 11 years early for their mom), and has Homer’s sight fade away during his late teens. (He actually went blind about 15 years before his death.)
These alterations bothered me more than I would have thought – jarring me out of the story at unexpected intervals like a broken spring in a movie seat – but other readers may not even notice, swept smoothly along by the skill of Doctorow’s prose.
It’s hard to buy a story about a blind musical prodigy, when he wasn’t blind as a young man and his brother was actually the pianist. But I was still moved when Langley brings home a player piano, so that Homer, who longs to learn more music, can memorize where to place his hands on the keys.
And other changes, such as Doctorow’s skipping Homer’s crippling rheumatism, struck me as kindnesses, however fictionally bestowed.
Ultimately, “Homer & Langley” takes a “to understand all is to forgive all” approach to the brothers’ lives. Gentle Homer has an expansive patience with his brother’s disorder and “morbidly thrifty” nature (not being able to see the mess probably helped), and Doctorow uses authorial invention to mitigate the grim effects of the Collyers’ isolation and compulsive hoarding.
Interludes with the hippies and a self-proclaimed French journalist help relieve the solitude, punctuated by angry visits from bill collectors and rock-throwing neighbors.
And while all the historical significance can seem a little forced, there’s nothing snickering or unkind about “Homer & Langley.” Had Doctorow played the brothers as sad freaks whose belongings ended up in a museum of oddities, there would have been no point to the novel.
I’m not sure “Homer & Langley” will stand as one of Doctorow’s best, but the story of two brothers united by their imaginations and disabilities ends up being a poignant one – rats, cockroaches, and all – and the ending has striking power.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really need to go load up some boxes for Goodwill.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.