‘Homer & Langley’: Ignorance is bliss

“Homer & Langley: A Novel” by E.L. Doctorow is a lyrically written, fascinating tale, a fictionalized account of the Collyer brothers, two eccentric, reclusive hoarders with Patrician origins who became legends in their own time (and not in a good way) before they died tragically in their New York mansion in the 1940s.

There’s only one problem with the book: If you’re familiar with the story of the Collyers, Doctorow’s fictionalized account can be jarring.

For instance: In Doctorow’s version, Langley Collyer has become unbalanced because of exposure to mustard gas while fighting in World War I. But those familiar with the Collyer story know that neither Langley nor his brother, Homer, served during the war, and that his madness probably arose from the fact that his parents were first cousins, or simply because eccentricity seemed to run in the family.

Doctorow also has Homer Langley losing first his vision and then his hearing, becoming even more isolated from the world than his self-imposed exile would have dictated. Homer did indeed lose his sight, and as his blindness followed a decline fueled by rheumatoid arthritis, he was what anyone would have considered severely disabled, but it’s apparent that he did retain his hearing.

“Homer & Langley” is, however, a riveting story. In their lifetimes, the Collyers were notorious figures in their crumbling Harlem neighborhood, with everything from great wealth to the powers of witchcraft attributed to them. But because they retreated from the attacks, eventually boarding up the windows of their house and almost never venturing beyond its walls, very little is known about their lives beyond neighborhood rumor.

That void is filled by Doctorow, who narrates the book in Homer’s voice, depicting Homer as patient, loving and somewhat indulgent toward his brother. Through Homer, the reader comes to see the brothers not as the Witches of Harlem but as two intelligent, cultured, troubled men who were utterly incapable of dealing with the changes of life in their era.

“Homer & Langley” poignantly humanizes them. But in this case, ignorance is bliss.

 

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