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'Homer & Langley' by E.L. Doctorow

The author tells another uniquely American story with an imagined life of the Collyer brothers, but he falls short of a big challenge.

August 30, 2009|David L. Ulin | Ulin is book editor of The Times.

Homer & Langley

A Novel

E.L. Doctorow

Random House: 208 pp., $26


E.L. Doctorow is the Lon Chaney of American fiction: man of a thousand faces, portrayer of a thousand lives. Since the publication of his first novel, "Welcome to Hard Times," in 1960, he has slipped in and out of an array of guises, imagining his way across the past, reinvigorating the interiority of our collective heritage.

At first, this had more to do with style than substance: "Welcome to Hard Times" is a western, and Doctorow's 1966 follow-up, "Big as Life," owes much to science fiction tropes. But beginning in 1971 with "The Book of Daniel" -- narrated by the son of a couple based on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg -- Doctorow found his true subject: the intersection of history and personality, the drama of America, its brilliant promise and its awful failings, in which private matters play out against a broader world.

Because of his approach, Doctorow has, at times, been misread as a sentimentalist; just look at the film made from his best-known novel, "Ragtime," the saga of a family, and a culture, unraveling in the face of a modernity they can't understand. Yet through it all, the author has maintained a startling consistency of vision, from the brutal romanticism of "Billy Bathgate" to the edgy existentialism of "City of God," the 2000 novel in which he concludes that even history cannot sustain us, that "[w]e are weak, and puny, and totter here in our civilization. . . . We have only our love for each other for our footing, our marriages, the children we hold in our arms, it is only this wavery sensation, flowing and ebbing, that justifies our consciousness and keeps us from plunging out of the universe. Not enough. It's not enough. We need a place to stand."

Doctorow's new novel, "Homer & Langley," is very much about these issues: the frailty of our yearnings and achievements, the need to find standing in the world. Based on the story of the Collyer brothers, two Manhattan recluses who died in 1947 in an upper Fifth Avenue brownstone stuffed to the gills with newspapers, artifacts and other detritus (even a Model T Ford), it is of a piece with works like "Ragtime" or "Billy Bathgate" in its fluid blending of fact and fiction, although here the lines are more difficult to parse. That's because "Homer & Langley" is a claustrophobic book, almost entirely inward-looking, not unlike the situation it evokes. Narrated by Homer -- "I'm Homer, the blind brother," the novel opens -- it has an oddly insubstantial quality, a distance brought on by the character's inability to see what he describes.

The real Homer Collyer was blind, although not until the last 14 years of his life. In Doctorow's telling, blindness comes earlier, a slow darkening that afflicts Homer in his teens, and which he observes with a characteristically detached air. "The houses over to Central Park West went first," he tells us, "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."

That's a risky way to begin a novel, with your narrator losing one of his key senses; fiction, after all, is a sensuous medium, relying not so much on what we know but on what we perceive. If nothing else, this sets up a series of creative challenges, compounded by the insularity of the narrative, the characters' retreat from the world. This is the sort of off-kilter undertaking Doctorow has routinely relished: In his 2005 novel "The March," he re-creates Sherman's devastation of Georgia and the Carolinas less as epic history than a flood of personal apocalypses, while "City of God" is constructed as a writer's notebook, full of fragments so elliptical it takes nearly 50 pages to decode.

What these books share, however, is a sense of moment, of the significance of their stories, the idea that they are situated somewhere between memory and myth. "Homer & Langley" never does achieve such stature. Like so much of Doctorow's writing, it is set against the sweep of history. After Langley is gassed in the trenches of World War I and comes home damaged in body and spirit, the brothers linger, like ghosts in an abandoned reliquary, through Prohibition, the Depression, the Cold War and on into the hippie days. These are long lives, and yet nothing really happens, no lasting attachments, nothing more than the relentless passage of the days.

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