Tuesday, September 1, 2009
E. L. Doctorow’s new novel, “Homer & Langley
from the article,
The last name of the title characters of E. L. Doctorow’s new novel, “Homer & Langley,” is Collyer, and the book’s brothers do, in fact, turn out to be versions of those infamous New York pack rats, whose overstuffed Harlem brownstone — crammed floor to ceiling with towering piles of newspapers, suitcases and boxes, as well as 14 pianos, half a dozen toy train sets, chandeliers, a car chassis and more than 100 tons of garbage — made their name synonymous with obsessive-compulsive collecting.
The corpses of the two men would be found in their Fifth Avenue home by police in 1947: one buried under an avalanche of rat-infested trash; the other, dead of starvation and assorted ailments.
How did the well-to-do scions of one of New York’s oldest families come to such a sad and ludicrous end? The story is a kind of male, New York City version of “Grey Gardens,” and it has fascinated writers for years. It reportedly inspired Marcia Davenport’s 1954 novel, “My Brother’s Keeper,” and Richard Greenberg’s 2002 play, “The Dazzle,” and now Mr. Doctorow, using his patented blend of fact and fiction, has tackled it here, producing a slight, unsatisfying, Poe-like story that turns out to be a study in morbid psychology.
Mr. Doctorow (the E. stands for Edgar) has said he was named for Poe, and he’s ventured into his namesake’s Gothic territory before with his 1994 novel “The Waterworks,” a story about science and detection and families. That novel, like the author’s best-known works, “Ragtime,” “World’s Fair” and “Billy Bathgate,” showcased the author’s magical ability to conjure a vanished New York from the dust and smoke of history.
Clearly Mr. Doctorow wants to do something similar here, going so far as to extend his heroes’ lives through the Watergate era, but the reader unfortunately gets little visceral sense of the city or the country in these pages. After all, Homer and Langley spent much of their lives as recluses and came to inhabit a suffocating realm bounded by the walls of their town house. As a result, there are few excursions into the New York City Mr. Doctorow knows so well, and lots of time — far more than the reader might wish — spent inside the Collyer brothers’ musty, dusty, junk-filled home.
Posted by Chris Mansel at 2:09 AM