E.L. Doctorow

When you change houses, you get an up-close-and-tangible look at your stuff.  Carry it. Feel it. Measure it.  Wonder why you have it. Wonder what it’s good for. Wonder why you were once so excited to bring the stuff home (where it all piles up).

We just moved.  Now, we’re not pack rats or clothes horses.  But I couldn’t believe the four of us filled the whole truck. Two Men & A Truck & All Our Stuff.  Right there, all packed up, packed tight.

“Stuff.”

What a pejorative for all those things we once bought with a powerful mental thought running down some spinning, tumbling and ever-changing equation with multiple movable variables that boil down to a justification along an axis of logic and emotion between WANT and NEED.

So, perhaps, before you read “Homer & Langley,” go take all your stuff out of house or your condo or your apartment and put it out on the sidewalk and then move it back in.  (Chances are you won’t keep it all; this part will feel good.)  I couldn’t have read “Homer & Langley” at a better time. Maybe I was ready for the theme.

On so many levels, “Homer & Langley” is one of the most imaginative, interesting and compelling novels I’ve read in years.  My hat is off to E.L. Doctorow for just having the fortitude to dive, head first, into the muck.  The start is slow.  I couldn’t pin down where it was going. I didn’t expect the writing to be so light, near breezy.  Doctorow makes Homer Langley a trusted, engaging narrator. Events skip along. The great arc of the 20th century rolls out and times shift, things change and the Collyer brothers drift slowly and more deeply into their crazy world. Or is it? Maybe their world is odd, but are they?

They are outgoing at first, opening their door, holding parties.  And then, as the book progresses, as Langley’s theories grow more unusual, as the stuff starts to pile up, I felt as if I carried the weight and the burden of the possessions these brothers had accumulated in their “kingdom of rubble.”

Doctorow’s clean, clear imagination is powerful.  The prose is straightforward, unadorned.  We are deep inside the world of increasingly blind Homer, whose brother Langley returns from World War I and never seems the same.  Homer can’t comprehend what Langley has endured in battle. “Langley would tell me through the following weeks, interrupted occasionally by poundings on the door by the army constabulary for he had left his unit before being legally mustered out and given his discharge papers, and of all the difficulties with the law we were to endure in the years to come, this one, the matter of his technical desertion, was like the preview.”

Technical desertion.

That’s the theme—right there—for me.  Desertion.  The Collyer brothers flee society—and never have to leave.  Doctorow seems to be asking, what rights does anyone have to define their surroundings, their environment?  If you live in the city—particularly if you live in the city—is there an expected level of conformance?  Do you have a right not to pay your mortgage or your bill to the “electromonopoly?” The Collyer brothers push the boundaries, whether it’s on purpose or not.

“The truth is that Langley couldn’t say why he’d put the Model T in the dining room. I knew how his mind worked: he’d operated from an unthinking impulse, seeing the car on one of his collecting jaunts around town and instantly deciding he must have it while trusting that the reason he found it so valuable would eventually come clear to him.”

Doctorow takes the Collyer brothers’ fictional life decades beyond the real people this book is based upon—and to me, toward the end, it was hard to separate the Collyers’ struggles and slow demise with parallel woes the country faces and has faced in just the past few years, including the “the endless process of corporate mutations in which nothing changes or is improved.”  (Check out a terrific, brief video interview with Doctorow on the New York Times Web site.)

“Homer & Langley” spans the 20th century, from “glorious elegance” of post-World War I, including free-flowing dance parties, until the brothers live in one giant but miserable enclave amid “tunneled passageways.” Throughout, occasional individuals connect with the Collyers.  A few connect with Homer in moving, powerful ways. But institutions (government, business) find no route inside.  (Not even a tunneled passageway.)

You can’t help but feel the weight of their world and admire Doctorow’s ability to show their gradual withdrawal from society, their rejection of societal norms. In some ways, oddly, their massive accumulation of stuff (things, junk, objects, possessions, whatever) had no bearing on their ability to think freely, to experience others and express themselves as humans.

Garage Sale, Before the Move (Columbine St.)

Doctorow said he was inspired to write the novel because neighbors who lived near “Collyer Park” in New York City (the park built where the real-life house was torn down) said they had done “nothing positive” for the city.  The neighbors wanted the park name scrapped.  It was their attitude that prompted Doctorow to write something to sort the myth from the history.  Well done, I say.

There’s another myth about stuff and its ability to make your life better.

Well, actually, no.

Not so much.

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