Summary and book reviews of Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

Homer & Langley

By E.L. Doctorow

Homer & Langley
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  • Hardcover: Sep 2009,
    224 pages.
    Paperback: Sep 2010,
    224 pages.

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Book Summary

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.

Brilliantly conceived, gorgeously written, this mesmerizing narrative, a free imaginative rendering of the lives of New York’s fabled Collyer brothers, is a family story with the resonance of myth, an astonishing masterwork unlike any that have come before from this great writer.

Excerpt
Homer and Langley

I’m Homer, the blind brother, I didn't lose my sight all at once, it was like the movies, a slow fade-out. When I was told what was happening I was interested to measure it, I was in my late teens then, keen on everything. What I did this particular winter was to stand back from the lake in Central Park where they did all their ice skating and see what I could see and couldn’t see as a day-by-day thing. The houses over to Central Park West went first, they got darker as if dissolving into the dark sky until I couldn’t make them out, and then the trees began to lose their shape, and then finally, this was toward the end of the season, maybe it was late February of that very cold winter, and all I could see were these phantom shapes of the ice skaters floating past me on a field of ice, and then the white ice, that last light, went gray and then altogether black, and then all my sight was gone though I could hear clearly the scoot scut of the ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. There were several unusual sets of people who came into Homer and Langley's lives. Do you feel that Homer collected people the way that he collected objects? Why do you suppose that is or is not?

  2. What do you think of Langley' s Theory of Replacements? Given today's 24-hour news environment in which historical context is rarely addressed, does Langley's theory and perspective have some merit?

  3. Langley is obsessive in his quest to create one universal newspaper of "seminal events". What categories were used by Langley so that the newspaper would be "eternally current, dateless"? What categories would you add or change? Why?

  4. What effect did the war have on Langley — did he come back mentally damaged along with his medical ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse

Literally walled off, the brothers reinforce Doctorow's motif of isolation, embodying the modern mood of alienation that permeated 20th century culture. A fantastic feat completed through mundane means.   (Reviewed by Natasha Vargas-Cooper).

Full Review Members Only (1034 words).

Media Reviews
Kirkus Reviews

Usually a master at incorporating history into rich fiction, Doctorow offers few insights here and a narrator/hero who is never more than a cipher.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. It's a feat of distillation, vision and sympathy.

Library Journal

Starred Review. Doctorow in a minor key but as accomplished as ever.

The Los Angeles Times - David Ulin

The author tells another uniquely American story, but he falls short of a big challenge. [Much of Homer and Langley] fails to reflect the complex, messy exigencies of either history or life.

The Washington Post

Doctorow again creatively reconfigures and amplifies the historical record…There's a briskness to Homer & Langley that never flags, and its solitary protagonists—two lost souls—possess a half-comical, half-nightmarish fascination.

The Wall Street Journal

If the novel succeeds in making us care about the Collyers, the reason is Mr. Doctorow's own whiplash use of language, a daring, poetic meditation in prose of the kind that is familiar from his earlier novels, such as Ragtime, Billy Bathgate and The March.

The New York Times

The achievement of Doctorow's masterly, compassionate double portrait is that it succeeds for 200 pages in suspending the snigger, elevating the Collyers beyond caricature and turning them into creatures of their times instead of figures of fun.

Reader Reviews
Louisa Tucker Converse

Homer and Langley - A Study In Perspective
Homer and Langley Collyer were a pair of brothers who were caught up in the madness created by their own minds; Homer was the more dominant, Langley the pliable and amenable. Mr. Doctorow fails to give them even the semblance of human beings and ...   Read More

deb hone

so captivated i read it twice.
I would recommend this book to everyone, you will find a little piece of Langley and Homer in yourself, very relate-able characters. people that are hoarders really need to read this book. This book should be available in every public school library.   Read More

JD

Eloquence
I read in several "professional" reviews that Mr. D. does not go far enough into the minds of these fascinating characters or the history of the times that surround them. I must say this is called eloquence. When an author of his ability ...   Read More

PDXReader

Good, but not great
Historical fiction should offer a new perspective on real-life events or people, adding details created by the author to supplement what is known and factual. I felt like Doctorow didn’t do enough of that. The book, to me, felt a bit too “light,” ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

The Real Homer and Langley
The Collyer brothers of Doctorow's novel, like many of his fictional characters, are based on historical personalities. Though he shifts the time-period up a few decades and re-imagines the brothers, the bones of the narrative can be found in the headlines of decades past.
The real Homer Collyer (b. 1881) was found dead in his dilapidated Fifth Avenue mansion in Harlem in 1943. Homer and his younger brother Langley (b. 1885) had become infamous in Manhattan for their exorbitant wealth and reclusive lifestyle during the early 1930’s. For close to two decades neighbors and municipal officers tried to have the brothers evicted due to their refusal to dispose of rubbish and pay taxes, but the two remained in...

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