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E.L. Doctorow’s ‘Homer & Langley’

  The Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, were famous New Yorkers, but not in the typical way. They weren’t actors, artists or entrepreneurs. No, they were famous for being recluses engaged in decades of compulsive hoarding. Their home on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan was full of all manner of junk, collected by the brothers over many years.
  Although the strange, sad story is just a Google search away, over the years many writers of novels, movies and television dramas have been drawn to the challenge of incorporating the Collyers into works of fiction.
  The latest and most high-profile portrayal of the brothers is a novel by E.L. Doctorow, “Homer & Langley.” The celebrated New York author, perhaps best known for “Ragtime,” “Billy Bathgate” and the National Book Award-winning “World’s Fair,” has tackled this true-life tale in an attempt to understand why the Collyer brothers descended into their hermetic hell.
  Told from the perspective of Homer, who is blind, the novel is a sympathetic portrait of the brothers while acknowledging that their lifestyle is far from the social norm. Langley justifies his hoarding in a variety of ways, few of them particularly persuasive but most of them endearing. His extensive newspaper “archive” — stacks and stacks of papers filling the house — is, Langley says, necessary to prove his “Theory of Replacements.” Langley contends, essentially, that there is nothing new under the sun.
  Langley says, “Everything in life gets replaced. We are our parents’ replacements just as they were replacements of the previous generation. All these herds of bison they are slaughtering out west, you would think that was the end of them, but they won’t all be slaughtered and the herds will fill back in with replacements that will be indistinguishable from the ones slaughtered.”
  Based on this theory, Langley comes to believe he can create a dateless newspaper, one that covers all the fundamental events of human existence, rendering all other newspapers irrelevant. He buys the papers every day in his effort to document which stories deserve to go into his dateless newspaper.
  “Langley’s project consisted of counting and filing news stories according to category: invasions, wars, mass murders, auto, train and plane wrecks, love scandals, church scandals, robberies, murders, lynchings, rapes, police misdeeds, gangland rubouts, investment scams, strikes, tenement fires, trials civil, trials criminal and so on. … As he explained, eventually — he did not say when — he would have enough statistical evidence to narrow his findings to the kinds of events that were, by their frequency, seminal human behavior. … He wanted to fix American life finally in one edition, what he called Collyer’s eternally current dateless newspaper, the only newspaper anyone would ever need.”
  Clearly, this is a fool’s errand, yet there’s an ounce of truth in the fictional Langley’s theory. All dedicated news followers can attest that one house fire, one political scandal, one hurricane is much like the next. Only the names change.
  Doctorow adopts many facts about the brothers’ bizarre lives but he isn’t fettered by a strict adherence to the historical record. One key difference is a matter of timing. The Collyers died in 1947, but Doctorow has them living into the 1970s. By doing this, Doctorow is able to construct a narrative that nearly spans the 20th century, including World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War and the tumultuous 1960s.
  In the hands of this literary master, the story of the Collyers comes alive, complete with doomed love affairs, humorous capers, periods when the brothers emerge from their self-imposed exile and turning points of inevitable sorrow. The Collyers are very real and human in this novel. One might even come to believe there’s a bit of their eccentricity in all of us.

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