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Homer & Langley

Cover of Homer & Langley

Homer & Langley

A Novel
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Homer and Langley Collyer are brothers--the one blind and deeply intuitive, the other damaged into madness, or perhaps greatness, by mustard gas in the Great War. They live as recluses in their once grand Fifth Avenue mansion, scavenging the city streets for things they think they can use, hoarding the daily newspapers as research for Langley's proposed dateless newspaper whose reportage will be as prophecy. Yet the epic events of the century play out in the lives of the two brothers--wars, political movements, technological advances--and even though they want nothing more than to shut out the world, history seems to pass through their cluttered house in the persons of immigrants, prostitutes, society women, government agents, gangsters, jazz musicians . . . and their housebound lives are fraught with odyssean peril as they struggle to survive and create meaning for themselves.

Homer and Langley Collyer are brothers--the one blind and deeply intuitive, the other damaged into madness, or perhaps greatness, by mustard gas in the Great War. They live as recluses in their once grand Fifth Avenue mansion, scavenging the city streets for things they think they can use, hoarding the daily newspapers as research for Langley's proposed dateless newspaper whose reportage will be as prophecy. Yet the epic events of the century play out in the lives of the two brothers--wars, political movements, technological advances--and even though they want nothing more than to shut out the world, history seems to pass through their cluttered house in the persons of immigrants, prostitutes, society women, government agents, gangsters, jazz musicians . . . and their housebound lives are fraught with odyssean peril as they struggle to survive and create meaning for themselves.

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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One Of course I was sad too, but it was lucky this happened to me when I was so young with no idea of being disabled, moving on in my mind to my other capacities like my exceptional hearing, which I trained to a degree of alertness that was almost visual. Langley said I had ears like a bat and he tested that proposition, as he liked to subject everything to review. I was of course familiar with our house, all four storeys of it, and could navigate every room and up and down the stairs without hesitation, knowing where everything was by memory. I knew the drawing room, our father's study, our mother's sitting room, the dining room with its eighteen chairs and the walnut long table, the butler's pantry and the kitchens, the parlor, the bedrooms, I remembered how many of the carpeted steps there were between the floors, I didn't even have to hold on to the railing, you could watch me and if you didn't know me you wouldn't know my eyes were dead. But Langley said the true test of my hearing capacity would come when no memory was involved, so he shifted things around a bit, taking me into the music room, where he had earlier rolled the grand piano around to a different corner and had put the Japanese folding screen with the herons in water in the middle of the room, and for good measure twirled me around in the doorway till my entire sense of direction was obliterated, and I had to laugh because don't you know I walked right around that folding screen and sat down at the piano exactly as if I knew where he had put it, as I did, I could hear surfaces, and I said to Langley, A blind bat whistles, that's the way he does it, but I didn't have to whistle, did I? He was truly amazed, Langley is the older of us by two years, and I have always liked to impress him in whatever way I could. At this time he was already a college student in his first year at Columbia. How do you do it? he said. This is of scientific interest. I said: I feel shapes as they push the air away, or I feel heat from things, you can turn me around till I'm dizzy, but I can still tell where the air is filled in with something solid.

    And there were other compensations as well. I had tutors for my education and then, of course, I was comfortably enrolled in the West End Conservatory of Music, where I had been a student since my sighted years. My skill as a pianist rendered my blindness acceptable in the social world. As I grew older, people spoke of my gallantry, and the girls certainly liked me. In our New York society of those days, one parental means of ensuring a daughter's marriage to a suitable husband was to warn her, from birth it seemed, to watch out for men and to not quite trust them. This was well before the Great War, when the days of the flapper and women smoking cigarettes and drinking martinis were in the unimaginable future. So a handsome young blind man of reputable family was particularly attractive insofar as he could not, even in secret, do anything untoward. His helplessness was very alluring to a woman trained since birth, herself, to be helpless. It made her feel strong, in command, it could bring out her sense of pity, it could do lots of things, my sightlessness. She could express herself, give herself to her pent-up feelings, as she could not safely do with a normal fellow. I dressed very well, I could shave myself with my straight razor and never nick the skin, and at my instructions the barber kept my hair a bit longer than it was being worn in that day, so that when at some gathering I sat at the piano and played the Appassionata, for instance, or the Revolutionary Étude, my hair would fly about--I had a lot of it then, a good thick mop of brown hair parted in the middle and coming...
About the Author-
  • E. L. Doctorow's novels include The March, City of God, The Waterworks, Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, Lives of the Poets, World's Fair, and Billy Bathgate. His work has been published in thirty-two languages. Among his honors are the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, two PEN/Faulkner awards, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. E. L. Doctorow lives in New York.

Reviews-
  • O Magazine "Doctorow paints on a sweeping historical canvas, imagining the Collyer brothers as witness to the aspirations and transgressions of 20th century America; yet this book's most powerfully moving moments are the quiet ones, when the brothers relish a breath of cool morning air, and each other's tragically exclusive company."
  • BookPage "Doctorow works his usual magic in bringing history to life and larding it with disturbing implications...As with much of Doctorow's masterful fiction, Homer & Langley turns the American dream on its ear, offering us a glimpse of the dark side of our national--and personal--eccentricities."
  • Booklist starred review « "Following the panoramic scope of The March, Doctorow creates a microcosmic and mythic tale of compulsion, alienation, and dark metamorphosis inspired by the famously eccentric Collyer brothers of New York City... Doctorow has Homer, who is blind, narrate with deadpan humor and spellbinding precision...Over the decades, people come and go--lovers, a gangster, a jazz musician, a flock of hippies, but finally Homer and Langley are irrevocably alone, prisoners in their fortress of rubbish, trapped in their warped form of brotherly love. Wizardly Doctorow presents an ingenious, haunting odyssey that unfolds within a labyrinth built out of the detritus of war and excess."
  • Publishers Weekly starred review « "A sweeping masterpiece about the infamous New York hermits, the Collyer brothers.... Occasionally, outsiders wander through the house, exposing it as a living museum of artifacts, Americana, obscurity and simmering madness. Doctorow's achievement is in not undermining the dignity of two brothers who share a lush landscape built on imagination and incapacities. It's a feat of distillation, vision and sympathy."
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