Some may remember being required to read E.L. Doctorow’s colorful account of New York City during the turn of the century in “Ragtime.” While it’s no required reading, Doctorow’s newest novel, “Homer & Langley,” is a must for contemporary reading audiences who enjoy his work.
In the book, he tells his fictionalized version of the story of Homer and Langley Collyer, two brothers born to the lavish Park Avenue lifestyle, spending most of their adult lives as antisocial shut-ins.
Doctorow tells an interesting story, taking details from the truth of the brothers’ actual lives and tweaking details and times. The story is told from the point of view of Homer, the blind brother, who lost his sight at an early age. He is a generally resilient character, who functions without a cane, though he is entirely dependent on those around him. Homer eventually deteriorates and spends his final years trapped inside the house.
Homer’s older brother, Langley, was always the precocious brother, but fighting in World War I changes him, and he comes back angry and paranoid. This is when he begins to obsessively collect newspapers and other knickknacks inside their home. Their eccentricities move the plot forward through the years, and the natural challenges and obstacles they face show how the brothers react with their own peculiar flair.
Doctorow has done a fantastic job of skillfully telling a story based on fact. He doesn’t bore the reader by overloading the writing with pure history but allows actual events to unravel around the main characters.
He writes the fictional story to fit into historically factual surroundings, with the development of New York City occurring alongside the development of the brothers. When the neighborhood begins to fall apart, so does the health of the brothers. “Homer & Langley” is written in an almost conversational style but from a very educated perspective. Doctorow gives the novel a clear, fluid and conscious train of thought, which goes well with the general mood of the story.
The story is generally optimistic, despite how the characters’ lives develop. The narrator seems to always have an positive outlook, even when the characters’ power and water are cut off or when, for an entire summer, the neighborhood kids bombard the brothers’ house with stones. The narrator tries to consider the good first and take the bad in stride.
Doctorow skillfully varies his language. He is able to combine complex words and simple sentences to make a story that doesn’t get bogged down. However, at times, his lack of punctuation makes dialogue difficult to distinguish from narration.
He brings the book to life with sensory and authentic feeling that flows throughout the writing. He takes the reader into the scenes by weaving in sounds, smells and accents. For instance, Homer reminisces about going to an ice-skating rink as a child and listening as the skates scrape against the ice with “a very satisfying sound … scoot scut, scoot scut.” The general tone of the novel, and the style used, brings a musical quality to the writing.
Readers will enjoy the book, as it is funny, emotional and wonderfully written. Whether it is gradual maturity or increasing isolation from the world, all of the characters undergo authentic development. The novel puts the reader in the world of two escapists, and their life story entertains from cover to cover.