- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 6, 2009

By E.L. Doctorow
Random House, $26, 224 pages

Real-life brothers Homer and Langley Collyer died decades ago, but E.L. Doctorow’s imaginative take on their hermit like story invites comparisons to modern-day mores.

“Homer & Langley” recalls the reclusive brothers who became the source of morbid curiosity in the middle of the 20th century. Little is known about the conditions that led to their withdrawal from society — what better invitation to an author like Mr. Doctorow to fill in the blanks? Few weave historical fiction and fact with the style he brought to books like “Ragtime” and “Billy Bathgate.”

The story of this book is told by Homer Collyer, who became blind as a young man but used his heightened sense of hearing to navigate the world around him. Homer and Langley live in an opulent Manhattan home, their needs routinely tended to by a small crew of assistants. The Collyers have cash to burn, at least initially, but the loss of their parents forces them to depend upon each other more than siblings should.

When Langley is called off to fight in World War I, Homer turns to their various butlers and assistants for comfort. They become his extended family until Langley returns home, alive but forever scarred by a mustard gas attack.

The brother’s condition provides the spark that sends the duo careening out of control, but their descent arrives in credible increments. That’s to Mr. Doctorow’s credit, especially when one considers how the pair left this mortal coil — alone amidst mountains of moldy rubbish and newspaper stacks.

The Collyers’ lives neatly wrap around the bigger societal shifts of the 20th century. The pair tend to Victory Gardens, mourn the start of several major wars and watch their neighborhood transform around their doorstop.

The real Collyers died in 1947, but Mr. Doctorow extends their lives like so much taffy in order to view the Sixties through their warped prism. It’s Mr. Doctorow’s knack to concoct stories of an American long gone by but connect so much of them with current social trends.

Langley’s perpetual media project — he collected newspapers in the hopes of creating his own definitive news feed — echoes the rise of the Internet. And the mistrust and apprehension felt by the brothers whenever societal rules pin them down speaks to the tenuous nature of freedom in a country ruled by electric companies and safety standards.

The Collyers may have been mad, but they could easily be seen as the ultimate radicals, unwilling to adhere to societal restraints. The more they retreat from the world, the more people push back against their choices. That tension makes for compelling drama, and Mr. Doctorow also finds the humor within each confrontation.

The brothers slip out of their home one day to observe an anti-war rally, not realizing their disheveled appearance would win them friends among the chanting crowds. The rally leads to a gaggle of hippies moving in with them for a spell, letting Mr. Doctorow taunt the protesters’ lifestyle with alacrity.

At times, Mr. Doctorow seems rushed to link the Collyers with major cultural touchstones. In one chapter, he conflates a number of moments to align them better with the brothers’ situation. It’s one of the book’s few missteps.

“Homer & Langley” isn’t a freak-show affair. The author gives a measured dignity to his main characters. Langley, for all his scattershot rants, has a pure heart and cares deeply for his brother. And Homer’s sad quest for love provides the book’s more touching passages. His brief interludes with the public at large reveal a hunger to belong, to make contact with someone on a more profound level.

“Homer & Langley” doesn’t bear the heavy weight of tragedy despite the depressing arc of events. Instead, Homer’s sober narrative makes the brothers’ decline seem like a series of small accidents that just so happened to lead them into voluntary exile.

Christian Toto, who writes frequently on popular culture for The Washington Times, lives in Denver.

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