Maybe I shouldn’t have researched the Collyer brothers prior to reading this novel. (By research, I mean wikipedia.) And I probably should have changed the channel when the A&E program, Hoarders came on. This may have skewed my perspective of the lives of the real people fictionalized by E.L. Doctorow in Homer & Langley. As it is, their story is sad, sad, sad as they say.
Doctorow, long one of my favorites, has a certain penchant for history – whether the roaring-20’s of Billy Bathgate or Sherman’s March of the 1860’s and so on – he draws an immaculate, vivid picture of the world in that time period and populates it – often with historical figures – with incredibly well-drawn, if unlikable characters. Homer and Langley Collyer are not necessarily the greatest guys or the most appealing people on earth (certainly not Langley) but their story is compulsively compelling if for nothing but it’s train-wreck appeal. (Can’t stop looking! So much garbage in the house!) The life they chose is one which is hard to comprehend for the average human: born into the New York upper crust of the turn of the 20th century, they chose to seal themselves off from the world amid the squalor of their townhouse, their quality of life steadily degrading with the passage of time.
Over a 50 year span, with virtually no prompting from the outside world, the brothers – crazed, WWI vet Langley and blind, innocent Homer – collected every manner of object, paper, or item that either of them deemed necessary. A full Model-T in the living room, multiple pianos for Homer to play, and oh my god, the newspapers – the literal foundation of their empire of squalor. Langley was convinced (most likely from his experience breathing mustard gas during the war) that news could be condensed down to a few basic, archetypal storylines. He believed that every human story repeated itself so much that one could print a newspaper for all time, so to speak, with articles that would pertain to any possible story that could ever happen, anywhere. This paper would need to be published just one time, ever, since the stories are so cyclical. To research every possible storyline, in order to print such a masterpiece of humanity, Langley needed to read and keep, in perpetuity, every single newspaper printed in New York City. The Collyer home was eventually stacked, quite literally, floor to ceiling with these papers – a fact that would lead to their eventual demise.
I think that Doctorow’s telling of the Collyer story is a shockingly true account of the lives of the real men themselves. There may be some slight differences (Homer was paralyzed at the end of his life, but perhaps not deaf, for example) but the real story is so fantastical, so hard to comprehend, that there was hardly a need to fictionalize any of it, it seems. Doctorow skillfully brings these people back to life – not necessarily out of his own head this time, but more from the ashes of American folklore, which is where their incredible story has ended up residing. Homer exudes such a simple innocence throughout his brother’s madness that you cannot help but sympathize with his plight – a plight only made liveable by the simple fact that he cannot see any of it. Again though, this fact is ultimately the undoing of both men and their odd, symbiotic relationship. The final paragraph – without spoiling anything for you – is one of the most arresting I have ever read, anywhere. Even though I knew how the real story of the Collyers ended, Doctorow’s prose stopped me dead in my tracks, mouth agape. These men were magestic fodder for the very newspapers they collected – a story so bizarre, that even Langley couldn’t possibly have found room amongst his archetypal “newspaper for all time”.