Review: Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow

One of the best works of creative non-fiction that I have read, to date. Doctorow’s narrator is Homer Collyer, the youngest of the great Collyer family. Born and raised on New York’s 5th Avenue – Homer was privileged in wealth, looks, education, and love (platonic and otherwise). Things started going downhill fast. Homer’s brother Langley goes off to war, only to return a changed, cynical, and atheistic man. While Langley is away, the brothers’ parents die, and the trusted servants are not soon to follow – either in death or leave. Soon, it is just the two brothers, one of whom -our narrator – goes blind and (later) deaf. The other becomes strangely eccentric, picking up vagrants and offering them sanctuary, allowing nearly-assassinated gangsters to live and operate out of their quickly deteriorating manse, and collecting piles and piles of newspapers (among other things) for his one true, be-all-end-all newspaper of humanity. The most interesting aspects of the novel are 1) narration from the point of view of a blind and deaf man and 2) the relationship between the brothers, both of whom are defective in some way, but whom rely on each other to the point of hermitage from the world. The ending is truly beautiful and sad – and the brief inclusions of historical happenings, such as the many wars, the counter-culture and drug craze, and the advancement of technology, are particularly curious when told through the narrative eye of a sightless recluse. That the brothers live in such neglected poverty when they obviously have the means not to (they eventually pay off a mansion mortgage in full, when avoiding the bill simply becomes to bothersome) is also intriguing. It’s as if the brothers simply wished to be left alone, and felt themselves to be above all typicalities of everyday American life and citizenship. There is also an element of odd patriotism and familial pride, though neither brother wants much to do with family or their country. All-in-all, an interesting, unique read. Recommended, especially for those readers interested in American and/or New York cultural history.

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