Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow


DoctorowDoctorow, E.L. Homer and Langley. New York: Random House. 2009.

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

(Note: books are rated between one and five smiley faces, one being a book that I didn’t like all that much, and five being a book I loved.)

I have no idea why it’s taken me so long to get around to reading at least one book by this man (I did see Billy Bathgate, but seeing the movie doesn’t really count, does it?), but there you have it. I guess I just haven’t really been all that interested, despite many people over the last twenty years or so raving to me about him. I’m not someone who is typically drawn to late 20th-century, gets-fantastic-reviews-from-all-the-major-critics fiction, although I do like books set in New York City, of which Doctorow has written just a few. This one title of his finally caught my attention, though, because a. I’d never heard of the Collyer brothers (the eccentric recluses on whom this novel is based) until last year when I was browsing around online for something else and came across some nonfiction title written about them that sounded interesting and b. a friend of mine, who has read more than one Doctorow novel, read this book shortly after my discovery of the Collyer brothers and really liked it. This coincidence of discovery of and then hearing again about the brothers was enough to get me to grab it off the new books shelf when I saw it sitting there.

This should have been a book I disliked. I’m a real traditionalist when it comes to the written word. You have to be a darn good writer to get me to pay attention to your story if you are going to do something like ignore conventional and accepted punctuation (it’s the editor in me, I know. We editors tend to be a picky lot). Doctorow must be a darn good writer, because I found myself completely immersed in this story and didn’t even realize he’d decided not use any quotation marks until I was reaching the halfway point of the book. As I told my aforementioned friend, he certainly knows how to grab you and pull you in very gently and subtly, if this book is typical of the way he writes.  He gave me the mesmerizing voice of Homer, the brother who has been blind since he was a teenager and who shares his parents’ Fifth Avenue home with Langley (the collector. And we are not talking here about a normal collector. Langley brings new depth and meaning to the word “packrat,” as the brothers wind up with things he just must have, like a Model T Ford in their dining room), a man we soon discover has come back from WWI with a few screws loose. I found that I just didn’t want to stop listening to Homer, even though I knew this could not be a good story, that these young men were headed for a very sad life.

There is a sense of foreboding from the beginning. I was rooting for these two, even as I knew they wouldn’t win. Luckily, Doctorow inserts moments of great humor (like when an injured member of the Mob takes up residence in the Collyers’ home) to ease the pain a little. The humor works beautifully because it is so surprising, hidden there in all the despair. I didn’t expect to find myself chuckling over some of the more problematic symptoms of Langley’s mental disturbance and anguish, and yet, I did. That sense of foreboding is well-founded, but I won’t spoil the makes-you-want-to-gasp/cry/do whatever you do when you reach a perfect and perfectly sad ending. That magic is for you to discover next time you find yourself in the mood for a little melancholy served up to you by a very talented and wonderfully imaginative writer. This may have been the first, but it most certainly won’t be the last book I read by E.L. Doctorow.