I work in a cramped, windowless, smelly biology lab. It does nothing for my pasty complexion, and probably even less for my social skills, but what it does do is allow plenty of time to listen to copious amounts of NPR and best of all, audiobooks! I consider this the one and only perk to my job.
Last week I listened to Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow (read by Arthur Morey). The book is a fictional take on the lives of the Collyer brothers, who actually lived in the early 1900’s and became a New York legend after they were both found dead in their apartment amongst tons of garbage that had been hoarded for decades.
The story is narrated by Homer, the musically gifted younger brother who begins to go blind as a child. Langley is ivy-league educated, very intelligent, and very arrogant. Both boys are popular, happy, and living the life of luxury until Langley gets drafted during WWI. Langley returns to find that his parents have lost their lives to the Spanish flu and the responsibility of running the household and caring for Homer now rests solely on his shoulders.
Langley is exposed to mustard gas during the war, which destroys his voice and possibly begins his slide into madness. He begins to hoard and slowly fills up the apartment, to the point that Homer can no longer move independently around the home due to the massive accumulations of junk. Initially, the brothers each have relationships with other people; Homer has an affair with one of the housemaids and Langley is briefly married, but with time they grow more reclusive. Langley’s eccentricity drives him to a variety of odd projects and experimentations; one such example is his desire to create a single newspaper to last for eternity, a goal which compels him to collect a copy of every newspaper sold in the city every day as part of his research.
The story touches on significant historical events throughout the century. They hold dance parties and serve sherry in their home during prohibition, befriend a notorious gangster, watch helplessly as their Japanese-American servants are taken to an internment camp and even open up their home to a group of hippies. Langley’s paranoia of virtually everyone except his brother continues to grow with each day that passes, and yet it’s the same distrust and anger that compels him to interact with people as a way to get back at the government or other authority figures that he feels are attempting to control him. The electricity, water and phone lines are eventually cut off after Langley refuses to pay any bills and the house begins to deteriorate around them. Homer maintains his sanity to the very end and is both witness and victim to his brother’s descent into madness.
I found Homer’s narration to be extremely touching, engaging, and bittersweet. While outsiders saw the brothers as freaks, Homer offers readers a glimpse into their simultaneously bizarre and extraordinary private world.
I really enjoyed this book and it compelled me to do a little reasearch on the Collyer brothers. The reputedly cursed chair in which Homer died was morbidly displayed for years in a museum of human oddities before eventually passing into the hands of a private collector. For me, it only added to the story to be able to see the amazing black and white photos of the actual home from the 1940’s that eventually had to be razed due to it’s extreme state of dilapidation.