three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
43-Nov-Dec-2009
user_rating: 
0

A-Homer & LangleyIn a prolific and successful career spanning half a century, E. L. Doctorow has published more than a dozen novels, including the award-winning The March ( 4.5 of 5 Stars Selection Nov/Dec 2005), Billy Bathgate, Ragtime, World’s Fair, The Waterworks, and Loon Lake. As with most of Doctorow’s work, Homer & Langley explores the intersection of fiction and history.

The Story: In 1947, the story of Homer and Langley Collyer, scions of wealth who hoarded more than 100 tons of junk, including newspapers, tools, pianos, broken furniture, and even a reconstructed Model T, caught the nation’s interest when the two were found dead in their fashionable Harlem brownstone—Langley under an improbable mound of junk (one of his own booby traps for burglars), and the blind and sickly Homer of starvation. Taking some liberties with the story’s time frame (the brothers’ fictional counterparts live into the later decades of the 20th century) and many biographical facts, Doctorow’s Collyer brothers navigate a society always in flux as Homer narrates a poignant, lively tale against "the vast emptiness of this strange world."
Random House. 208 pages. $26. ISBN: 9781400064946

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"What makes this novel so striking is that it joins both blindness and insight, the sensual world and the world of the mind, to tell a story about the unfolding of modern American life that we have never heard in exactly this (austere and lovely) way before." Alan Cheuse

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"The humanization of the Collyer brothers has been a long time coming, and now it arrives in admirable form with E. L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley. The author presents both men as heroic pioneers who discover their own inner music and logic, choosing to remove themselves from all the bitter debris and turmoil beyond the walls of their mansion." Jerome Charyn

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As the brothers withdraw from the world, and from real history, the second half of Homer and Langley could have become overburdened by allegorical ballast. But Doctorow’s writing is so lithe, the book easily sustains all of its thematic musings—about technology and history and consumer culture, even the novelist as kind of housebound Quixote." Jess Walter

Miami Herald 3 of 5 Stars
"The Collyers not only provide an informative lesson for the slobby and careless but also the rather slim framework for E. L. Doctorow’s latest novel, which lacks the grander scope of some of his earlier work but still resonates with haunting eloquence. Doctorow uses the reclusive brothers as a conduit through the decades, and while the book is too slight to provide much perspective into U.S. history, it’s still an intriguing character study and an elegantly written exploration of isolation." Connie Ogle

Minneapolis Star Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"The historical muse that has served Doctorow so well in the past—as in Ragtime and Billy Bathgate—has been, this time, a little parsimonious. The story, though written in Doctorow’s typically expert way, not a word out of place, is nonetheless largely dry, as confined as its narrator’s life." Ellen Akins

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Like characters in a Poe story, Homer and Langley have entombed themselves within their once-elegant mansion—and become the center of ‘a circle of animosity rippling outward from our neighbors to creditors, to the press, to the municipality, and, finally to the future.’ As reimagined by Mr. Doctorow, however, their story has no Poe-like moral resonance." Michiko Kakutani

Denver Post 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Crazy people can be as dull as the sane. And Homer Collyer, who tells the story, proves to be a pallid and unengaging narrator, occasionally original in his accounts of his compensation for sightlessness, moderately moving in his love for his brother but finally leaving this 200-page novel less gripping than the Wikipedia pages from which my Collyer facts derive." Merritt Moseley

Critical Summary

Like any good historical novelist pushing the limits of his craft, Doctorow takes chances. And like the vast majority who take chances, he occasionally strikes the wrong chord. In the slight Homer & Langley, the author’s treatment of the history was a negative for some critics. Some felt that the narrator was less than engaging and that the imagined historical details were unconvincing, while others, including the New York Times, opined that Doctorow "never succeeds in making the brothers’ transition from mild eccentricity to out-and-out madness understandable to the reader." Yet even detractors gave a nod to the author’s stylistic chops. Readers who already appreciate Doctorow will welcome this novel, but the author’s refiguring of a peculiarly American cautionary tale will likely go down as a lesser volume in the master’s impressive body of work.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. There were several unusual sets of people who came into Homer and Langley's lives. Do you feel that Homer collected people the way that he collected objects? Why do you suppose that is or is not?

2. What do you think of Langley' s Theory of Replacements? Given today's 24-hour news environment in which historical context is rarely addressed, does Langley's theory and perspective have some merit?

3. Langley is obsessive in his quest to create one universal newspaper of "seminal events". What categories were used by Langley so that the newspaper would be "eternally current, dateless"? What categories would you add or change? Why?

4. What effect did the war have on Langley — did he come back mentally damaged along with his medical problems? How would the brothers' lives have been different if there had been no war?

5. Discuss the importance of Jacqueline in the story. Would the story have been as effective without this "muse"? Do you think she really existed?

6. On page 76 Homer talks about how things were for him when he and Langley returned to the house after their night in jail. He said, "this time marked the beginning of our abandonment of the outer world." He also said that for the first time he felt that his sightlessness was a physical deformity. What was it about the night in jail, the end of their community dances, and/or their return home that caused such a drastic shift in their lives?

7. One of the novel's themes is isolation/a feeling of being separate from the world. Some characters do this by choice, others not. Discuss how Homer, Langley, and their various houseguests feel isolated from the world around them.

8. In what ways is the house a character as well as the setting? How does the house's condition reflect the brothers' physical and mental conditions?

9. The brothers' paranoia became ever-increasing, causing them to lay booby traps and close themselves in with physical as well as emotional shutters. Homer's last thoughts were, I wish I could go crazy so I might not know how badly off I am. Could Homer and Langley have been "saved" from themselves?

10. The book is told from Homer's point of view. Why do you think the author chose Homer to tell the story of the brothers? How did Homer's disability affect his telling of the story? How would the story be different if Langley had been the voice?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Dial Press. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.