Homer and Langley

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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 ...

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Homer and Langley

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Cunningly panoramic…Doctorow has packed this tale with episodes of existential wonder that cpature the brothers in all their fascinating wackiness.” —Elle

“Doctorow paints on a sweeping historical canvas, imagining the Collyer brothers as witness to the aspirations and transgressions of 20th century America; yet this book’s most powerfully moving moments are the quiet ones, when the brothers relish a breath of cool morning air, and each other’s tragically exclusive company.” — O Magazine

“Doctorow works his usual magic in bringing history to life and larding it with disturbing implications…As with much of Doctorow’s masterful fiction, Homer & Langley turns the American dream on its ear, offering us a glimpse of the dark side of our national–and personal–eccentricities.” — BookPage

“Following the panoramic scope of The March, Doctorow creates a microcosmic and mythic tale of compulsion, alienation, and dark metamorphosis inspired by the famously eccentric Collyer brothers of New York City… Doctorow has Homer, who is blind, narrate with deadpan humor and spellbinding precision…Over the decades, people come and go–lovers, a gangster, a jazz musician, a flock of hippies, but finally Homer and Langley are irrevocably alone, prisoners in their fortress of rubbish, trapped in their warped form of brotherly love. Wizardly Doctorow presents an ingenious, haunting odyssey that unfolds within a labyrinth built out of the detritus of war and excess.”
«–Booklist starred review «

“A sweeping masterpiece about the infamous New York hermits, the Collyer brothers…. Occasionally, outsiders wander through the house, exposing it as a living museum of artifacts, Americana, obscurity and simmering madness. Doctorow’s achievement is in not undermining the dignity of two brothers who share a lush landscape built on imagination and incapacities. It’s a feat of distillation, vision and sympathy.”
«–Publishers Weekly starred review «

Michael Dirda
…as with his much admired novels The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Billy Bathgate and The March, 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. They seem, at once, symbols of both American materialism and of American loneliness. Think of Melville's "isolatoes," or of all those forlorn men in shirt sleeves and the dispirited women of Edward Hopper's paintings, or of Hank Williams singing "I'm so lonesome I could cry."
—The Washington Post
Liesl Schillinger
When Homer, in a bid for empathy, asks, "What could be more terrible than being turned into a mythic joke?" readers caught up in Doctorow's tender, lushly drawn narrative may feel a pang, remembering Langley's Theory of Replacements and wondering what slot history has in store for them. Yet after the novel's spell ebbs, they will probably, guiltily, revert to the more instinctive response to Homer's plea. What's worse than being turned into a joke? Dying in your house buried under 100 tons of trash. 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.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Doctorow, whose literary trophy shelf has got to be overflowing by now, delivers a small but sweeping masterpiece about the infamous New York hermits, the Collyer brothers. When WWI hits and the Spanish flu pandemic kills Homer and Langley's parents, Langley, the elder, goes to war, with his Columbia education and his "godlike immunity to such an ordinary fate as death in a war." Homer, alone and going blind, faces a world "considerably dimmed" though "more deliciously felt" by his other senses. When Langley returns, real darkness descends on the eccentric orphans: inside their shuttered Fifth Avenue mansion, Langley hoards newspaper clippings and starts innumerable science projects, each eventually abandoned, though he continues to imagine them in increasingly bizarre ways, which he then recites to Homer. Occasionally, outsiders wander through the house, exposing it as a living museum of artifacts, Americana, obscurity and simmering madness. Doctorow's achievement is in not undermining the dignity of two brothers who share a lush landscape built on imagination and incapacities. It's a feat of distillation, vision and sympathy. (Sept.)

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Library Journal
A young man leading a privileged life in early 1900s New York goes blind. His brother goes to war and returns home a different person, reckless yet reclusive after being gassed. Their parents, never a strong presence in their lives, languish and die, and so Homer and Langley are left on their own in a Fifth Avenue apartment that slowly decays as Langley stacks it with all manner of rubbish he lovingly collects. Langley has mad schemes—he wants to publish a newspaper that needs only one issue, encapsulating all that's worth knowing—but he sees with stark clarity what's wrong with the world. Homer, a sensitive pianist, sticks with Langley. Together, through Homer's failed liaison with a housemaid, the death of longtime servants, and the internment of their Japanese housekeepers during World War II, the brothers age, their lives summing up a fading 20th-century America. This novel defines quiet desperation, captured with such precision by the unerring Doctorow that it can be a dispiriting read—as, one thinks, the author intended. The ending is wrenchingly poignant. VERDICT Doctorow in a minor key but as accomplished as ever. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/09.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Kirkus Reviews
Brothers live together in a decaying New York City mansion as history marches on in the latest from Doctorow (The March, 2005, etc.). Brothers Homer and Langley share a moneyed childhood in relative bliss, although narrator Homer is slowly going blind. Then both Homer's parents succumb to the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918, shortly before older brother Langley returns from service in World War I damaged by mustard gas. Increasingly eccentric (or deranged), Langley devotes his life to organizing articles from the newspapers he collects and never throws away. Homer's musical ambitions never come to much. Nor do his romantic affairs. Langley's one marriage is a disaster. But the brothers' lives touch on history, or its surface accoutrements, with a vengeance. Homer plays accompaniment for silent movies. Langley drives a Model T into the dining room. In the '20s they frequent speakeasies, where they meet a stereotypical gangster playboy who by the '50s has become more of a stereotypical Mafioso. Their African-American cook has a New Orleans jazz musician grandson. During the Depression the brothers throw "tea dances" to make extra money. The FBI whisk away a nice Japanese couple in the brothers' employ to a World War II internment camp. By the '50s Langley has acquired a television and a typewriter collection. By the '60s the brothers are taking in hippies as well as feral cats. Later Homer is dismayed to discover the young girl he once mentored as a musician and secretly loved has become an activist nun murdered in South America. As the brothers' funds shrink and the Fifth Avenue mansion they inherited falls into decay, the parallel to Gray Gardens comes to mind, particularly since an agingHomer types his memories on a Braille typewriter for a French journalist named Jacqueline. 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. Author tour to Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles
The Barnes & Noble Review
In the spring of 1947, I was 11 and Edgar Lawrence Doctorow was 15. In those years before television, we lived in a city of legend and myth called New York. I lived in a tenement in Brooklyn. Doctorow was a resident of the distant Bronx. In our separate worlds, we shared the same myths. Most of the tales were oral, full of gangsters and ballplayers and occasional heroes. But our imaginations were also fed by the written word. By books, usually borrowed from the public library, and by newspapers.

Then one morning in March those newspapers gave us a brand-new myth: the tale of the Collyer brothers: Homer and Langley. On March 21st, someone made a call to the police, saying that there was a dead man in the four-story brownstone at 2078 Fifth Avenue, on the corner of 128th Street in Harlem. The cops knew the house for its two ancient inhabitants, its boarded-up windows, its vile summer stench. Neighbors knew the men as ghostly nocturnal figures.

To be sure, the brothers, like the house they lived in, were survivors from another time. In the late 19th century, Harlem was white and prosperous, a perfect setting for characters out of Edith Wharton's splendid fictions. The Collyer brothers did not grow up rich; but they were "well off." Their father was a doctor. Their mother had ambitions to sing opera. The 1947 newspapers said that Homer was born in 1881 (the year that Henry James published The Portrait of a Lady and some other mythic Americans fought the gunfight at the O.K. Corral). His brother Langley arrived in 1885. They moved into the house in 1909 and stayed on after the parents died. In March 1947, when the cops started investigating the report of a death, the revelations burst from the front pages of newspapers. Thousands of New Yorkers started arriving in Harlem for a look.

Far away in Brooklyn, the emerging myth of the Collyer brothers was made personal to us because one of our neighbors, a detective named Joe Whitmore, was assigned to the investigation. "You never seen anything like that place," he told my father one morning, while I listened in awe. "It's like a trip to Purgatory." His eyewitness accounts of filth, rats, newspapers stacked to ceilings, pianos everywhere (14 of them), a Model T automobile, and narrow tunnels through the densely packed trash were verified by the newspaper stories. Or, rather, Joe Whitmore verified the newspaper stories.

The cops found Homer first. He was propped up in a chair, crippled and twisted by rheumatism, his hair wild and white, his beard falling below his chest. He wore only a tattered blue bathrobe. He had starved to death. They didn't find Langley for another three weeks. Despite reports of sightings all over New York and as far away as Atlantic City, his body lay only eight feet away from Homer's, crushed by thick walls of trash he had rigged as a booby trap. Rats had been dining on his aging flesh.

Within days of the first discoveries, the Collyer brothers had entered the mythology of New York, while becoming part of the city's language for at least two generations. Millions of New York mothers must have scolded their children with variations on the same lines: "Look at this room! You guys are like the Collyer brothers!" In my own life, even today, I aim the same accusing words at myself, gazing at the thousands of books, magazines, newspapers that I'm so reluctant to throw away. I never call myself Homer, or Langley, but I often feel like a card-carrying member of the Collyer brotherhood.

Now E. L. Doctorow has brought his extraordinary literary art to bear on this enduring New York story. The result is a wonderful novel. As in The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, The Waterworks, Billy Bathgate, and other fictions, Doctorow is here less concerned with factual truth than with imagining the lives within the myth. This is not unique to him. After all, Stephen Crane did not fight in the Civil War. Leonardo da Vinci was not present at the Last Supper.

For Doctorow, history is almost always the first draft of myth. But it is more than that too. In my reading, what distinguishes him from most other makers of historical fictions is that he approaches the subject matter like a musician. Sometimes directly -- it was impossible for me to read Ragtime without hearing Scott Joplin. In this new novel, I hear John Coltrane, the great tenor sax player. The first line is certainly as direct as Coltrane.

"I'm Homer, the blind brother."

The notes that matter are "blind" and "brother." But the narration goes on as Homer explains how he realized in his late teens what was happening to him. He would stand near the lake in Central Park in winter when it was filled with ice skaters.

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 blades on the ice, a very satisfying sound, a soft sound though full of intention, a deeper tone than you'd expect made by the skate blades, perhaps for having sounded the resonant basso of the water under the ice, scoot scut, scoot scut.

In this and other passages, Doctorow brilliantly gives us the sense of blindness in all its varieties, including its compensations. Homer Collyer learns to see through sound and smell and texture. In Doctorow's version of the myth, Homer is also a trained musician, saying early that "my skill as a pianist rendered my blindness acceptable in the social world." He goes to dinner parties with his older brother Langley and often plays for the guests and the young women. Langley goes off to World War One and comes back a changed, obsessive man. In "real" life, the musician was Langley, not Homer, and Homer was older than Langley by four years. Langley apparently did not serve in World War One (too old). This playing with the facts doesn't truly matter, any more than the true story of Frankie and Johnny matters, or the biography of Stagger Lee. What should matter in a work of imagined art is the imagination and the art.

Doctorow supplies both, in what is a story of a grand refusal of the world and its conventions. The brothers eventually ask nothing of the world. No charity. No acclaim. They want to be left alone. There is a brief time when servants provide the illusion of family, but eventually they leave. One, a young Irish girl, is the object of Homer's affections, but she goes off to become a nun. Homer says at one point, about a girl he met at summer camp: "Is there any love purer than this, when you don't even know what it is?" But the most enduring love story in Doctorow's novel is the love of each brother for the other.

Homer always speaks with affection about Langley, even realizing that his brother's habit of collecting things might be getting out of hand. Newspapers were a huge problem. Langley's major project was "the collection of the daily papers with the ultimate aim of creating one day's edition of a newspaper that could be read forevermore as sufficient to any day thereof."

Across half a century, Langley's first act every morning is to buy the newspapers. He never throws them away.

Langley's project consisted of counting and filing news stories according to category: invasions, wars, mass murders, auto, train, and plane wrecks, love scandals, church scandals, robberies, murders, lynchings, rapes, political misdoings with a subhead of crooked elections, police misdeeds, gangland rubouts, investment scams, strikes, tenement fires, trials civil, trials criminal, and so on.

Eventually, "he would have enough statistical evidence to narrow his findings to the kinds of events that were, by their frequency, seminal human behavior." And goes on: "He wanted to fix American life finally in one edition, what he called Collyer's eternally current dateless newspaper, the only newspaper anyone would ever need."

(In a 1977 panel at Harvard, Doctorow said: "If I could get Punch Sulzberger to agree to issue the paper as written in its entirety by me, on just one day, I would spend many, many years preparing that particular city edition. And I would consider it -- it would be my life's work." The roads to art are often long and surprising.)

In the final 40 pages of this novel, Doctorow makes another great leap of the imagination. The Collyer brothers don't die in 1947. They live on, through the 1960s and after, trying to make sense of the violent and unjust world and their own lives. Homer goes deaf. He huddles in the labyrinth of the packed house, hungry, inert, with "only the touch of my brother's hand to know that I am not alone." In this lean, deep novel about time, memory, and love, neither is the reader. --Pete Hamill

Pete Hamill is the author of North River, Forever, Downtown, A Drinking Life, and many other works of fiction and nonfiction.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812975635
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/7/2010
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 160,776
  • Product dimensions: 8.28 (w) x 11.22 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

E. L. Doctorow

E. L. Doctorow’s novels include The March, City of God, The Waterworks, Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, Lives of the Poets, World’s Fair, and Billy Bathgate. His work has been published in thirty-two languages. Among his honors are the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, two PEN/Faulkner awards, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. E. L. Doctorow lives in New York.


E. L. Doctorow, one of America's preeminent authors, has received the National Book Critics Circle Award (twice), the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Edith Wharton Citation For Fiction, and the William Dean Howells medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has also published a volume of selected essays Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution, and a play, Drinks Before Dinner, which was produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival. He resides in New Rochelle, New York.

Author biography courtesy of Penguin Group (USA).

Good To Know

Doctorow began his career as a reader for Columbia Pictures. He went on to work as an editor for New American Library in the early 1960s, and then served as chief editor at Dial Press from 1964 to 1969.

Critics assailed Doctorow for delivering a commencement address critical of President George W. Bush at Hofstra University in May 2004.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Edgar Lawrence Doctorow (full name; named for Edgar Allan Poe)
      Edgar Laurence Doctorow
    2. Hometown:
      Sag Harbor, New York, and New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 6, 1931
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      A.B., Kenyon College, 1952; postgraduate study, Columbia University, 1952-53
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

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 blades on the ice, a very satisfying sound, a soft sound though full of intention, a deeper tone than you’d expect made by the skate blades, perhaps for having sounded the resonant basso of the water under the ice, scoot scut, scoot scut. I would hear someone going someplace fast, and then the twirl into that long scurratch as the skater spun to a stop, and then I laughed too for the joy of that ability of the skater to come to a dead stop all at once, going along scoot scut and then scurratch.

Of course I was sad too, but it was lucky this happened to me when I was so young with no idea of being disabled, moving on in my mind to my other capacities like my exceptional hearing, which I trained to a degree of alertness that was almost visual. Langley said I had ears like a bat and he tested that proposition, as he liked to subject everything to review. I was of course familiar with our house, all four storeys of it, and could navigate every room and up and down the stairs without hesitation, knowing where everything was by memory. I knew the drawing room, our father’s study, our mother’s sitting room, the dining room with its eighteen chairs and the walnut long table, the butler’s pantry and the kitchens, the parlor, the bedrooms, I remembered how many of the carpeted steps there were between the floors, I didn’t even have to hold on to the railing, you could watch me and if you didn’t know me you wouldn’t know my eyes were dead. But Langley said the true test of my hearing capacity would come when no memory was involved, so he shifted things around a bit, taking me into the music room, where he had earlier rolled the grand piano around to a different corner and had put the Japanese folding screen with the herons in water in the middle of the room, and for good measure twirled me around in the doorway till my entire sense of direction was obliterated, and I had to laugh because don’t you know I walked right around that folding screen and sat down at the piano exactly as if I knew where he had put it, as I did, I could hear surfaces, and I said to Langley, A blind bat whistles, that’s the way he does it, but I didn’t have to whistle, did I? He was truly amazed, Langley is the older of us by two years, and I have always liked to impress him in whatever way I could. At this time he was already a college student in his first year at Columbia. How do you do it? he said. This is of scientific interest. I said: I feel shapes as they push the air away, or I feel heat from things, you can turn me around till I’m dizzy, but I can still tell where the air is filled in with something solid.

And there were other compensations as well. I had tutors for my education and then, of course, I was comfortably enrolled in the West End Conservatory of Music, where I had been a student since my sighted years. My skill as a pianist rendered my blindness acceptable in the social world. As I grew older, people spoke of my gallantry, and the girls certainly liked me. In our New York society of those days, one parental means of ensuring a daughter’s marriage to a suitable husband was to warn her, from birth it seemed, to watch out for men and to not quite trust them. This was well before the Great War, when the days of the flapper and women smoking cigarettes and drinking martinis were in the unimaginable future. So a handsome young blind man of reputable family was particularly attractive insofar as he could not, even in secret, do anything untoward. His helplessness was very alluring to a woman trained since birth, herself, to be helpless. It made her feel strong, in command, it could bring out her sense of pity, it could do lots of things, my sightlessness. She could express herself, give herself to her pent-up feelings, as she could not safely do with a normal fellow. I dressed very well, I could shave myself with my straight razor and never nick the skin, and at my instructions the barber kept my hair a bit longer than it was being worn in that day, so that when at some gathering I sat at the piano and played the Appassionata, for instance, or the Revolutionary Étude, my hair would fly about—I had a lot of it then, a good thick mop of brown hair parted in the middle and coming down each side of my head. Franz Lisztian hair is what it was. And if we were sitting on a sofa and no one was about, a young lady friend might kiss me, touch my face and kiss me, and I, being blind, could put my hand on her thigh without seeming to have that intention, and so she might gasp, but would leave it there for fear of embarrassing me.

I should say that as a man who never married I have been particularly sensitive to women, very appreciative in fact, and let me admit right off that I had a sexual experience or two in this time I am describing, this time of my blind city life as a handsome young fellow not yet twenty, when our parents were still alive and had many soirees, and entertained the very best people of the city in our home, a monumental tribute to late Victorian design that would be bypassed by modernity—as for instance the interior fashions of our family friend Elsie de Wolfe, who, after my father wouldn’t allow her to revamp the entire place, never again set foot in our manse—and which I always found comfortable, solid, dependable, with its big upholstered pieces, or tufted Empire side chairs, or heavy drapes over the curtains on the ceiling-to-floor windows, or medieval tapestries hung from gilt poles, and bow-windowed bookcases, thick Persian rugs, and standing lamps with tasseled shades and matching chinois amphora that you could almost step into…it was all very eclectic, being a record of sorts of our parents’ travels, and cluttered it might have seemed to outsiders, but it seemed normal and right to us and it was our legacy, Langley’s and mine, this sense of living with things assertively inanimate, and having to walk around them.

Our parents went abroad for a month every year, sailing away on one ocean liner or another, waving from the railing of some great three- or four-stacker—the Carmania, the Mauretania, the Neuresthania—as she pulled away from the dock. They looked so small up there, as small as I felt with my hand in the tight hand of my nurse, and the ship’s horn sounding in my feet and the gulls flying about as if in celebration, as if something really fine was going on. I used to wonder what would happen to my father’s patients while he was away, for he was a prominent women’s doctor and I worried that they would get sick and maybe die, waiting for him to return.

Even as my parents were running around England, or Italy, or Greece or Egypt, or wherever they were, their return was presaged by things in crates delivered to the back door by the Railway Express Company: ancient Islamic tiles, or rare books, or a marble water fountain, or busts of Romans with no noses or missing ears, or antique armoires with their fecal smell.

And then, finally, with great huzzahs, there, after I’d almost forgotten all about them, would be Mother and Father themselves stepping out of the cab in front of our house, and carrying in their arms such treasures as hadn’t preceded them. They were not entirely thoughtless parents for there were always presents for Langley and me, things to really excite a boy, like an antique toy train that was too delicate to play with, or a gold-plated hairbrush.

we did some traveling as well, my brother and I, being habitual summer campers in our youth. Our camp was in Maine on a coastal plateau of woods and fields, a good place to appreciate Nature. The more our country lay under blankets of factory smoke, the more the coal came rattling up from the mines, the more our massive locomotives thundered through the night and big harvesting machines sliced their way through the crops and black cars filled the streets, blowing their horns and crashing into one another, the more the American people worshipped Nature. Most often this devotion was relegated to the children. So there we were living in primitive cabins in Maine, boys and girls in adjoining camps.

I was in the fullness of my senses, then. My legs were limber and my arms strong and sinewy and I could see the world with all the unconscious happiness of a fourteen-year-old. Not far from the camps, on a bluff overlooking the ocean, was a meadow profuse with wild blackberry bushes, and one afternoon numbers of us were there plucking the ripe blackberries and biting into their wet warm pericarped pulp, competing with flights of bumblebees, as we raced them from one bush to another and stuffed the berries into our mouths till the juice dripped down our chins. The air was thickened with floating communities of gnats that rose and fell, expanding and contracting, like astronomical events. And the sun shone on our heads, and behind us at the foot of the cliff were the black and silver rocks patiently taking and breaking apart the waves and, beyond that, the glittering sea radiant with shards of sun, and all of it in my clear eyes as I turned in triumph to this one girl with whom I had bonded, Eleanor was her name, and stretched my arms wide and bowed as the magician who had made it for her. And somehow when the others moved on we lingered conspiratorially behind a thicket of blackberry bushes until the sound of them was gone and we were there unattended, having broken camp rules, and so self-defined as more grown-up than anyone believed, though we grew reflective walking back, holding hands without even realizing it.

Is there any love purer than this, when you don’t even know what it is? She had a moist warm hand, and dark eyes and hair, this Eleanor. Neither of us was embarrassed by the fact that she was a good head taller than me. I remember her lisp, the way her tongue tip was caught between her teeth when she pronounced her S’s. She was not one of the socially self-assured ones who abounded in the girls’ side of the camp. She wore the uniform green shirt and gray bloomers they all wore but she was something of a loner, and in my eyes she seemed distinguished, fetching, thoughtful, and in some state of longing analogous to my own—for what, neither of us could have said. This was my first declared affection and so serious that even Langley, who lived in another cabin with his age group, did not tease me. I wove a lanyard for Eleanor and cut and stitched a model birch bark canoe for her.

Oh, but this is a sad tale I have wandered into. The boys’ and girls’ camps were separated by a stand of woods through the length of which was a tall wire fence of the kind to keep animals out and so it was a major escapade at night for the older boys to climb over or dig under this fence and challenge authority by running through the girls’ camp shouting and dodging pursuing counselors, and banging on cabin doors so as to elicit delighted shrieks. But Eleanor and I breached the fence to meet after everyone was asleep and to wander about under the stars and talk philosophically about life. And that’s how it happened that on one warm August night we found ourselves down the road a mile or so at a lodge dedicated like our camp to getting back to nature. But it was for adults, for parents. Attracted by a flickering light in the otherwise dark manse we tiptoed up on the porch and through the window saw a shocking thing, what in later time would be called a blue movie. Its licentious demonstration was taking place on a portable screen something like a large window shade. In the reflected light we could see in silhouette an audience of attentive adults leaning forward in their chairs and sofas. I remember the sound of the projector not that far from the open window, the whirring sound it made, like a field of cicadas. The woman on the screen, naked but for a pair of high-heeled shoes, lay on her back on a table and the man, also naked, stood holding her legs under the knees so that she was proffered to receive his organ, of which he made sure first to exhibit its enormity to his audience. He was an ugly bald skinny man with just that one disproportionate feature to distinguish him. As he shoved himself again and again into the woman she was given to pulling her hair while her legs kicked up convulsively, each shoe tip jabbing the air in rapid succession, as if she’d been jolted with an electric current. I was rapt—horrified, but also thrilled to a level of unnatural feeling that was akin to nausea. I do not wonder now that with the invention of moving pictures, their pornographic possibilities were immediately understood.

Did my friend gasp, did she tug at my hand to pull me away? If she did I would not have noticed. But when I was sufficiently recovered in my senses I turned and she was nowhere to be seen. I ran back the way we had come, and on this moonlit night, a night as black and white as the film, I could see no one on the road ahead of me. The summer had some weeks to go but my friend Eleanor never spoke to me again, or even looked my way, a decision I accepted as an accomplice, by gender, of the male performer. She was right to run from me, for on that night romance was unseated in my mind and in its place was enthroned the idea that sex was something you did to them, to all of them including poor shy tall Eleanor. It is a puerile illusion, hardly worthy of a fourteen-year-old mind, yet it persists among grown men even as they meet women more avidly copulative than they.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Homer & Langley was inspired by the real-life Collyer brothers—recluses who actually lived in a Fifth Avenue townhouse filled with rubble until their deaths in the late 1940s. Doctorow took some creative liberties in his retelling of their story—namely, extending the brothers’ lives by several decades. Why do you think Doctorow made these factual changes, and how would you say this affects the impact of their story as a whole?
2. Why do you think Doctorow chose to write from Homer’s point of view? How would the novel have been different if Langley was the narrator? 
3. Homer and Langley lose their parents to Spanish influenza while Langley is abroad fighting in World War I. Do you think the brothers’ lives would have been different had their parents survived? How? How did the war affect Langley? 
4. Describe Homer and Langley as individuals. How do they change over the course of the novel? How do their opinions of the outside world change? How does their relationship as brothers change?
5. Langley's hoarding escalates to a new level when he installs a Model T Ford car in the dining room. Grandmamma Robileaux thinks the appearance of the Ford is a sure sign that Langley is completely out of his mind. Homer says, “My brother is a brilliant man. There is some intelligent purpose behind this, I can assure you” (79). Is Homer right? Is there a purpose behind Langley’s compulsions? Or is he out of his mind, as Grandmamma fears? 
6. A central component of the novel is Langley's "Theory of Replacements," which he explains to Homer before going off to war: “Everything in life gets replaced. We are our parents’ replacements just as they were replacements of the previous generation” (14). Langley continues to develop his theory throughout the novel, and it is the basis for the master newspaper he is creating, which will be "one day's edition of a newspaper that could be read forevermore as sufficient to any day thereof" (48). What do you make of Langley’s "Theory of Replacements"? How does it evolve throughout the course of the brothers' lives? 
7. Several characters move in and out of the Collyers’ home over the years. Consider these individuals and the roles they played in the brothers’ lives: Julia, Siobhan, Grandmamma Robileaux, Harold Robileaux, Vincent, the Hoshiyamas, Lissy and her friends, and others. What did the brothers learn from these people? What did you learn about the brothers from their interactions with these individuals?
8. Things take a turn for the worse when Grandmamma Robileaux goes back to New Orleans. Homer reflects: “Grandmamma had been the last connection to our past. I had understood her as some referent moral authority to whom we paid no heed, but by whose judgments we measured our waywardness” (100). What do you make of this statement, knowing how things end up for the Collyer brothers? If Grandmamma had stayed in the house, would things have been different?
9. Homer loses his eyesight while he is still quite young, but his other senses are quite advanced. In conversation with his brother, Langley tells him, “Among the philosophers there is endless debate as to whether we see the real world or only the world as it appears in our minds, which is not necessarily the same thing” (47). Homer responds, “Well, maybe it’ll turn out I have eyes as good as anyone’s” (47). Discuss the issue of sight and perception, and how it plays out in the novel. 
10. Until they are shut down by the police, the Collyer brothers host tea dances in their home as an opportunity for neighbors to drink, listen to music, and cut loose. How did you reconcile the reclusive figures at the end of the novel with the livelier men who hosted these neighborhood social events?

11. The brothers both have complicated—and ultimately unproductive—relationships with women throughout the book. Discuss the various women in their lives: from Julia to Mary Elizabeth Riordan to Lila van Dijk to Anna to Jacqueline. Why do you think neither man ever found lasting love?
12. What did you make of Homer’s relationship (or lack thereof) with Jacqueline Roux, his “muse”?
13. At the end of the novel, the brothers are together in the house, but alone with their thoughts in different rooms. The final sentence is chilling, as Homer asks, “Where is my brother?” (208). What did you think of novel’s conclusion? 
14. Through the eyes of the Collyer brothers, Doctorow shows us a vision of New York City from the 1930s through the 1960's. Discuss the different eras and the historical significance of each. 

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 99 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 99 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    i loved it

    its a story that blooms inside you. memorable characters. reading it was like chatting with an old friend and getting deep inside their personal ideology. the story tells of how the blind see deeply and how blind the sighted can be. definitely a permanent library book. great piece of american literature.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2009

    A masterpiece

    Doctorow has an incredible ability to bring his characters to life. He draws you into this story with his unique and poetic use of the language and one can't help but to get hooked by his prose.
    A must read!

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 10, 2010

    A Fresh Look At An Old Story

    My family often refers to the Collyer brothers as a way to (hopefully) inspire some house cleaning. My parents are native New Yorkers and clearly remember the tale of these wealthy siblings, trapped by their mental illnesses and the inherited money that allowed them to exist in such a bizarre manner. Although this is a fictionalized account of the real life Collyers, it reads as non-fiction. The plan to write a "memoir" is very well executed. I truly enjoyed this.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 8, 2010

    E. L. Doctorow Has Written Another Gem!

    E. L. Doctorow's take on these historical brothers is masterful. He has crafted a story for the reader to understand how the two privileged Collyer brothers might have ended up reclusive and lonely. This epic tale encompasses wars, political movements, police corruption and advancing technology in a spellbinding way. The reader of this audiobook brilliantly made the pages come alive and the characters real. I highly recommend this book, which is in the class of Ragtime and Billy Bathgate.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 20, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Good mix of fact & fiction

    I like reading this style of story. If you read it, just be sure to do a little bit of research first. Don't take the storyline as gospel truth, but Doctorow certainly does pesent a very plausible look into the mind of Homer. I do even know some people with similar housekeeping habits!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 12, 2009

    Doctorow -- What else do you need?

    While I would not classify this as Doctorow's finest work, even when he's mediocre, quite honestly, he's so far superior to most of what else is out there, that this is well worth the read. Doctorow's ability to create fiction based upon historical events and people is always pleasing and satisfying. I'm a fan of Doctorow and have read all of his work and would have no problem recommending "Homer and Langley" to other readers.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 7, 2009

    more from this reviewer


    Sorry to say that I could only get 50 pages into this book. Boring would be a kind description of the story.

    2 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 27, 2011

    Entirely Uncalled for and Depressing Ending

    The book was interesting and enjoyable right up until the last 20 pages or so. Doctorow did a good job developing the main characters, and his first person narrative style is incredibly engaging. The way that Homer relates his life is moving, and it's delivery makes one feel like one is listening to an old man on his back porch thinking aloud about his younger days.

    The part that makes the book horrible is its ending. The author takes this tale of life, with all of its ups and downs, and ends it in such a depressing manner completely unbefitting the rest of the book. I'm not asking for a happy ending to all of the tales that I read, but this one was way out of line.

    I do not recommend this book to anyone, but if you feel the need to read it, put it down early before the ending ruins the entirety of the tale.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 18, 2010

    Read this before you purchase e-book!

    I enjoyed this fascinating journey through history from the viewpoint of the two brothers.

    But I don't recommend this book as an e-book until B & N fixes the problem with the disappearing margins. Half-way through the book, the nicely spaced margins disappeared. This was on the Medium Font setting. The words were right next to the edges of the screen which made for uncomfortable reading. I just read a review of another e-book and a similar problem was described as an 'e-book format problem'.

    This is only the second book I've purchased to read on my new Nook. Barnes & Noble should not release books in e-book form until they get the formatting correct. I look forward to reading many more books on my Nook and trust this book-seller will address this issue.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2009

    Interesting but...

    I enjoyed the book but frankly was annoyed by the factual inaccuracy. Am not sure why it was necessary to change the story of two very real and very weird eccentrics.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2009

    Kind of Slow Moving

    The wrtting style was fine. The story of Brother whom my Mother used to say I was like was really interesting.
    I thought the book lacked direction. It seemed the writer was taking my from place to place with no real pattern, or meaning for being there.

    All in all, it was not bad. I think the best part for me, was I was able to re-live the New York City area.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2013


    Kept engrossed right up to the heartbreaking ending. Narrator's voice is sharp and spellbinding. You can practically hear his closing words echoing through the house. I can nevet fault Doctorow. Who can criticize the genius who gave the world Ragtime?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2012

    Great Book

    Great book to read. In the beginning did not what to expect in the first few pages but the read was a pleasant surprise. Great book club book to discuss.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted February 20, 2010

    Collecting the 20th Century!

    When wealthy,reclusive brothers succumb to hoarding behavior their collection is not only about them it is also about us.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2010

    Imaginative insight into an historical event

    Intelligent, fictionalized account of two brothers in NY who became famous in death for their compulsive hording -
    Gives humanity and understanding to a family that was castigated in their time for such odd behavior.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2010

    Vintage Doctorow

    This is a fascinating book about a very strange compulsive behavior. Doctorow does a masterful job in describing the relationship between these two brothers in a very implausable living situation. Highly recommend.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted January 11, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Light,enjoyable read

    Enjoyed the insight on hoarding. Writing style was light,but enjoyable. Very descriptive. You could "see" the home. Like the musical references,too. Plot was thin. Characters were well developed. Liked how one brother commented on other brother. Made me laugh aloud.

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  • Posted December 19, 2009

    Modern Historical Fiction with Psychological Intrigue

    I decided to purchase this book after hearing E.L. Doctorow read the first few pages at one of the "Writers on a New England Stage" events we enjoy here in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I was immediately pulled into the drama of the lives of the Collyer brothers, their privileged upbringing and the view of life from Homer, the blind brother and narrator of the story. However, Doctorow's reading of the first few evocative pages was only a taste of the fascinating tale to come. The story gets much more interesting when you discover Langley, who is a bright yet injured man with an obsessive-compulsive disorder of the hoarding variety. E.L. Doctorow said that he first became interested in the Collyer brothers when the New York City Fire Department had to go through the roof of the Collyer Mansion to reach the brothers because the home was otherwise inaccessible...and they lived on Fifth Avenue so it must have been quite a spectacle. The cover photograph is taken from Central Park and shows the mansion surrounded by taller buildings dwarfing the residence.

    The adventures of the brothers, who were orphaned when they were young men, are a reflection of the life and times in New York as well as the influence of the outer world on their increasingly insular world. As E.L. Doctorow stated, it is a historical novel. He took the skeletal framework of the facts of the two brothers lives and hung the story on that framework as a a dresser drapes clothing on a dress model. It is a lovely draping.

    There are events and changes that happened in the world over the years that managed to enter the brothers sphere and touch them profoundly. The brothers themselves are compelling. Homer, the blind musician, is an acute observer who seduces women easily into his later years. Langley, the damaged intellectual, is a miser who nevertheless becomes an extravagent collector of oddities until the end. One is stable, the other completely unpredictable, yet they both co-exist and depend upon each other in a world all their own.

    I liked this book because of the way the "world all their own" was drawn so beautifully by E.L. Doctorow's writing. There is nothing wasted in the writing, nothing peripheral or distracting in the story, and every word falls into place perfectly. As such, it is a fast and completely enjoyable read.

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  • Posted December 12, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Cover was done well and interesting.

    This book tends to drag on-a slow read. There were too many thoughts and memories coming from Homer and not enough about the character of Langley. I am disappointed.

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  • Posted November 27, 2009


    An interesting version of the brothers Collyer. But by the time I was done, it only made me want to know what REALLY happened by culling as much as possible from articles online. There were immediate discrepancies - big ones - so I guess I'd prefer the real thing. Still, Doctorow of course is worthy of the material.

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