Homer and Langley Collyer were two hoarding recluses who suffered notorious celebrity, at least in New York City, in the 1940s as they fought against the power company, the bank, and the city council. They lived in a large house inherited from their parents and filled it with everything they could get their hands on. Homer was blind; Langley saved years of newspapers in massive piles (‘like cotton bales’ Doctorow imagines) in case Homer ever got his sight back and wanted to catch up on the news. By the end, the paranoid brothers had set traps around the house and could barely move through the narrow passageways between junk. They died within days of each other in 1947 and compulsive hoarding is named after them – Collyer Syndrome. According to Wikipedia, 103 tonnes of rubbish was removed from their house:
Items removed from the house included baby carriages, a doll carriage, rusted bicycles, old food, potato peelers, a collection of guns, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, a sawhorse, three dressmaking dummies, painted portraits, pinup girl photos, plaster busts, Mrs. Collyer’s hope chests, rusty bed springs, the kerosene stove, a child’s chair (the brothers were lifelong bachelors and childless), more than 25,000 books (including thousands about medicine and engineering and more than 2,500 on law), human organs pickled in jars, eight live cats, the chassis of the old Model T Langley had been tinkering with, tapestries, hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric, clocks, fourteen pianos (both grand and upright), a clavichord, two organs, banjos, violins, bugles, accordions, a gramophone and records, and countless bundles of newspapers and magazines, some of them decades old.
From such promising source material in the hands of a masterful novelist, Homer & Langley disappointed me. It feels like a novel which never takes off. Narrated by Homer, it is an episodic account of his life from childhood to the late 1970s (Doctorow has the brothers live on several decades longer than they did in real life). A gangster and a group of hippies stay with the brothers at different times, and many others come into their lives for a little time only to leave again. Doctorow doesn’t stay with any of these characters long enough for their interactions with the Collyers to take on enough significance.
The other problem is the first person narration. It doesn’t suit the story Doctorow is telling. We need a narrator who can see the significance and full eccentricity of the Collyers, rather than one to whom their life is insignificant. We need fresh eyes – and Homer has no sight at all – to describe the wonders of the hoarded house.
Perhaps the conflict with the power company and banks would have been more compelling if there was a character representing one of them, an antagonist in ongoing conflict with the Collyers, instead of a couple of faceless stand-offs at the front door.
The charms of this novel are in Homer’s philosophy of the world and his mad projects.
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. For five cents, Langley said, the reader will have a portrait in newsprint of our life on earth. The stories will not have overly particular details as you find in ordinary daily rags, because the real news here is of the Universal Forms of which any particular detail would be only an example. The reader will always be up to date, and au courant with what is going on. He will be assured that he reads the indispensable truths of the day including that of his own impending death, which will be dutifully recorded as a number in the blank box on the last page under the heading Obituaries. (p.49)
At moments like these, the novel brings to mind Paul Auster and the fascinating life projects of his characters.
I could find only one non-fiction book written about the Collyers; it’s called Ghosty men : the strange but true story of the Collyer brothers by Franz Lidz.