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Homer and Langley ~ E. L. Doctorow

September 24, 2009


Genre: Adult Fiction

Publisher: Random House

224 pages

ISBN: 9781400064946

In the dawn of the 20th century, the sun rises on Manhattan’s fifth avenue with hope and youth as Homer and Langley Collyer come of age. The young brothers, born to wealthy and social Mr. and Mrs. Collyer have their futures spread out in front of them with nothing to lose. That is, until Homer, the younger, begins to lose his sight. As his eye power wanes, his story begins, seeing (so to speak) his brother off to the battle fields of The Great War and their lives changed forever.

In near Forrest Gump-like fashion, the brothers glide through the decades of the next century with ease and slight strangeness, putting on a benign but maligned post-prohibition speak-easy, an impromptu immigrant safe haven, a reluctant gangster hide-out, a less reluctant hippie den, and a general collection of oddities both in object and in person.

Homer is the straight man to the inherent dreamer, Langley, watching history march along. Both are endearing but I found myself highlighting and dogearing Langley at every step. He is eloquent, philosophical and prophetic, albeit completely nuts. This is the first time I’ve read Doctorow and, so help me, I fell in love.The writing is superb and the characters endearing, especially given their historical inspiration.

The story is brilliant and while it takes a great departure from the original urban legend and unbelievable but true stories of The Collyer Brothers of Manhattan’s upper east side, it follows certain aspects with creepy detail. The pair did live on Fifth Avenue and began collecting bizarre items once their parents passed. Eventually found dead and rat-eaten in their own hoarded mess, the real brothers “passed” in the forties. Doctorow imagines their lives up through the 80’s giving their fates a completely false but not all-together different ending.

I think, while there is some truth to the way the brothers lived (and died) many reviews have focused too much on the inevitable micro-historical comparisons. I, however, knowing nothing of the factual story when I opened the book, enjoyed the view of the rolling decades passing through New York, America and Europe with social commentary and poetic elegance.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am off to do some hoarding, myself, namely everything else Doctorow has produced due to my aforementioned falling head over heels in love.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 24, 2009 8:30 am

    I’ll have to read more of Doctorow. I have City of God on my list (and on my shelf) and Ragtime is one of my absolute favorite books of all time.

  2. September 24, 2009 9:37 am

    I love novels based on true stories – and this one sounds very intriguing.

  3. September 24, 2009 11:58 am

    Wow, good review. i really want to read this book now.

    And you’re really making me want to start undelining passages and highlighting books again!

  4. September 30, 2009 10:40 am

    I have this novel and now I really, really have to read it! Although I have one of his other novels (Billy Bathgate?), I’ve never picked anything up. I’m going to have to work this one into my schedule – and fast!

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