BY NICO VREELAND
Author: E.L. Doctorow
2009, Random House
Best ebook deal: Sony eBook Store
Filed under: Literary
Homer and Langley follows Homer and Langley Collyer, a pair of nearly inseparable brothers, for most of the twentieth century. The novel is episodic and slowly meandering, as events both personal and historic wash over the two of them, and their house on Fifth Avenue, across the street from Central Park.
At various times, the house is a dance hall, the resting place of a Model T, a crash pad for hippies, and the setting of a myriad of personal and interpersonal dramas. Each of these events comes along and leaves alone, and while they’re loosely connected, Homer and Langley resembles a collection of linked stories moreso than a proper novel.
And while it’s worth a read, it’s not a book to be devoured on a bus ride. It’ll go down better a chunk at a time, the way you would read a story collection.
Homer, the narrator and writer of the book, is blind, but can “hear surfaces.” He almost delights in being blind and often uses it to his advantage, mostly to hit on women. He plays the piano and indulges his brother, and contemplates the women he has known. He occasionally addresses a Jacqueline in the narrative; we meet her eventually, and it is underwhelming in a heartbreaking way.
Langley went to war (World War I) and was gassed, which left his voice mangled and something else of him not quite right. He has dreams of creating an eternally current newspaper, and expounds on his Theory of Replacements. He collects things, primarily every edition of every daily newspaper in the city. Also, eventually: “the guts of pianos, motors wrapped in their power cords, boxes of tools, paintings, car body parts, tires, stacked chairs, tables on tables, headboards, barrels,” and so forth.
As those collections might indicate, Homer and Langley chronicles, more than anything else, the eccentricities of these two brothers. More and more, they try to hold the world at bay outside their Fifth Avenue house, and their lives become a savoring of idiosyncratic pleasures balanced against the realities of modern life.
Doctorow’s style is a bit old-fashioned, Hemingway but more verbose, Faulkner but less wrought or overwrought. It’s thoughtful and measured, but still able to crack its knuckles when there’s work to be done. Here’s a sample:
There was something about Langley’s worldview, firmly in place at his birth, though perhaps polished to a shine at Columbia College, that would confer godlike immunity to such an ordinary fate as death in a war: it was innocents who died, not those born with the strength of no illusions.
Or this one:
And so do people pass out of one’s life and all you can remember of them is their humanity, a poor fitful thing of no dominion, like your own.
This is a book that invites contemplation, and interpretation. In my view, Homer and Langley is most broadly about isolation: the pull of it and the cost of it, its ideals and realities, and, finally, the impossibility of it.
I don’t think this one will win Doctorow many prizes, but it’s interesting and affecting and well-rendered. It does well as a secondary book to read, and it’s well worth the time.