Homer &

A Novel
E. L. Doctorow
(Random House)
The Collyer brothers lived alone in a grand New York City mansion where they collected things. Baby carriages, pianos, motors, tools, gas masks, candles, "car body parts, tires, stacked chairs, tables on tables, headboards, barrels, collapsed stacks of books."

There was also --- their most famous artifact --- a mountain of newspapers with careful paths made between the stacks so the brothers could get around their dark castle there on upper Fifth Avenue.

It wasn't Homer Collyer who did the collecting: he was blind, and preferred to spend his day at the old Aeolian, playing Mozart, Bach, Chopin. The collector was brother Langley. He got up early in the morning to pick up the morning papers and went out again late at night to get the evening editions, which he stored, along with their father's "collection of human organs and fetuses floating in jars of formaldehyde" --- dad had been a doctor --- plus

    side chairs piled one on top of another, the flowerpots filled with the earth of my mother's botany experiments, the Chinese amphora, the grandfather clock, the innards of two pianos, the tall electric fans, the several valises and a steamer trunk, the stacks of newspapers piled in the corners and on the desk.

And the Model T.

In the dining room, there under the dusty old chandelier, was an old car ... partially dismantled, with flat tires. Langley had a theory that he could turn the auto into a source of power so they wouldn't have to depend on Consolidated Edison any more. Con Ed! They always had problems with the utility bills:

    A registered letter was delivered one morning from a law firm representing "Con Edison" --- the new slick name of the Consolidated Edison Company that we thought appropriately confessional and self-defining.

So there stood the bills, and the papers, and the Model T, even after Langley lost interest. Sooner or later, seems he lost interest in almost everything he brought home: typewriters, fans, pianos, law books. Langley had many theories that inspired his collecting. One was about the news.

According to Doctorow, he collected and filled the halls with the many newspapers because he was going to create a single whole newspaper for all time. With this, you and I would never have to buy the Times again because everything that happened and was going to happen was to be found in the Collyer's "eternally current dateless paper."

§     §     §

Doctorow has taken these two brothers, there in their junk-filled mansion in Manhattan and spun the web of a tale around them, made them (almost) understandable. The story doesn't need much embellishment, I suspect: it's already quite odd, this trash-pile in a once-glorious town house, and --- such is Doctorow's finesse that, as we read about it --- we find ourselves getting a little weird, too (Should I be collecting so many books? How about my overstock of dozens and dozens of single socks, festering in my dresser, forever wanting a mate? Do I need five broken toaster-ovens?)

§     §     §

In the course of the novel, there are other people who stray into the mansion; they get rather strange, too. Not so much the old family cook, Mrs. Robileaux, from Louisiana (she's their last connection with the past, with mother and father, now dead). But the Japanese couple --- the Hoshiyamas --- they get into it, nicely, sitting respectfully behind Homer while plays Schubert and Brahms. Unfortunately, they are hauled off by the FBI (it's 1942, World War time).

Then come the goons, with their boss, Vicente, banging in through the front door, "dumbfounded by the state of the hideaway they had chosen. In their minds we were a household given to strange otherworldly furnishings --- like the stacks of old newspapers in most of the rooms and on the stair landings."

    But when they came upon the Model T in the dining room, if it had been up to them they would have departed immediately. It may be that their bewilderment is what saved us from harm...

They ultimately get sucked into "the newspaper project." Langley found himself helped

    by the men who took turns going out in the morning and evening to pick up the papers so as to see what was being said about the shooting and Vincent's disappearance.

§     §     §

My old English teacher, Dr. Fox, who collected Henry James first editions (too damn many, said his wife), said that all novels have a "watershed," where everything (characters, plot, even style) come together, and then, afterwards, flow off in another direction. The gangster episode, smack-dab in the middle of Homer & Langley is our watershed here: It's certainly the funniest part, brings the two brothers together, literally. When the goons suddenly depart, they leave the brothers "tied up in two kitchen chairs back-to-back with clothesline,"

    of which we happened to have enough looped and coiled in the hardware cabinet in the basement to go twice around a city block.

The two manage to get themselves unraveled from the chairs and each other, and from there on, the book becomes a bit unraveled as well, as if Doctorow didn't know what to do with these two crazies he found locked in their palatial trashheap there on Fifth Avenue. (The reader gets a bit locked-in too: not enough air, too much gloom there in the rooms with the windows blocked off.)

Finally, the author, perhaps feeling somewhat suffocated himself, drags in not another typewriter or piano or gas-mask --- we have enough of those, thanks anyway --- but five kids from an anti-Vietnam war demonstration across the street in Central Park ... and we are thinking, wait, didn't the Collyer Brothers end up dead sometime in 1947? And then we think hell, it is a novel so it's OK to gum up the timeline a little bit, no? --- but our thought is that if Doctorow had a better handle on his story he could have brought it off --- even, Saints Preserve Us, Homer Collyer stoned, in bed, with Lissy (a hippy!). She's trying to get him to meditate, to think about nothing, and he says, "I can't think about nothing, " and she says "Shhh, Homer." And then "this tremulant wisp of a girl ... Leading me through it."

    The love broke over me like the hot tears of a soul that has found salvation.

§     §     §

Despite tremulant wisps, the story droops after the departure of Vincent and his hoodlums because, we suspect, the case of Homer & Langley is sui generis. Which is exactly what Langley tells Homer when he asks about them being suddenly discovered by the city busybodies (it was the Fire Department that reported them after that blaze in the junk-filled back-yard).

The two are suddenly overwhelmed by reporters, curiosity-seekers, intruders (rumors of vast fortunes hidden under the newspapers), and children throwing stones.

Blind Homer asks Langley about their story, which we have just read ... asks, "How would you run this in Collyer's forever up-to-date newspaper?"

    We are sui generis, Homer, he said. Unless someone comes along as remarkably prophetic as we are, I'm obliged to ignore our existence.
--- Lolita Lark
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