Homer and Langley, By EL Doctorow

Two brothers, both blind to the dangers of hoarding

The reclusive Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, became a tabloid sensation in the first half of the 20th century. Not least in 1947, when a manhunt was called for the capture of Langley after the body of his brother was found in the once-elegant Fifth Avenue Manhattan manse they had inherited.

The manhunt was called off three weeks later – but there was no let-up in public interest, as it emerged that a putrefying Langley had been found dead just 10 yards from Homer's body. Why had the police taken so long to make the grisly discovery? The 130 tons of knick-knacks, gewgaws, newspapers, baby carriages, rusted bicycles, guns, chandeliers, cameras, dress-making dummies, portraits, bowling balls, stoves, books (25,000), cats (8), pianos (14), organs (2), banjos, accordions, bank-account passbooks (34) and a Model-T Ford (in the dining-room, naturally) that covered nearly every surface doubtless had something to do with it.

The Collyers had become infamous not only for their collection of detritus, but also for their raging battles with utilities providers for refusing to pay their bills; Langley felt that he could not be free if he bowed to outside pressures on his home life. He had also become paranoid, believing that burglars would be after his "collection", and so set traps throughout his home – one of which caught its setter, leading both to his death and that of his brother, who had relied on him for food.

A difficult, shrouded subject for historical fiction, then. And all the more so given EL Doctorow's choice of narrator. "I'm Homer, the blind brother," reads the first line of this fictionalised memoir – the result being a singularly inward-looking novel focusing on its protagonists' retreat from the world.

So while Doctorow raises the spectres of the Great War, the Depression, Prohibition, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, the assassinations of John, Bobby and Martin, the reader experiences only as much as Homer himself. From the war, Langley's hacking cough and broken spirit; from Prohibition, a friendship with a gangster; from those three assassinations, a wrinkle of the brow, as Homer is rather preoccupied with the hippies living in their home. Great sweeps of history, swept under the rug. Not to mention the "paintings, car body parts, tires..."

Doctorow has played out the drama of the individual's world against a broader picture before, from the American Civil War in The March to the viciousness of McCarthyism in The Book of Daniel, to reveal more about the events themselves than a simple history could offer. But it is impossible to miss the intent when the author extends Homer's blindness to deafness by the end of this novel: he is deliberately restricting his ambition to understanding this one man and his impression of his brother, shut off from the outside world.

As a French journalist, with whom Homer becomes besotted, says: "There is music in words, and it can be heard... by thinking." And so it is that Doctorow tries to reach the essence of an essentially unknowable man, not through the events that surround him, but through the way he expresses himself. And while it is true that neither Homer nor Langley ever really gets anywhere or does anything (Langley's great project to create a newspaper that is never out of date effectively causing both their deaths), their chronicler makes sure they achieve that nothing in quite some lyrical style; even from the off, when he describes Homer's oncoming blindness: "All I could see were these phantom shapes of the ice skaters floating past me... and then all my sight was gone though I could hear clearly the scoot scut of the blades on the ice... a soft sound though full of intention, a deeper tone than you'd expect made by the skate blades, perhaps for having sounded the resonant basso of the water under the ice, scoot scut, scoot scut."

Anyone seeking searing insight into what it means to live, and to have lived, through some of the most troubled periods of the past century and a half, should look to Doctorow's other novels: The March, Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, The Waterworks. But those who accept that a historical novel need not do more than paint a picture of its protagonists will find here the most exquisite writing, an extraordinary story and a charmingly wry take on life and all its inconveniences.

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