New York City’s Collyer brothers are the subject of E. L. Doctorow’s new novel. He’s taken the folklore of their early 20th Century lives in a Fifth Avenue mansion and turned it into a gorgeous and affecting tribute to eccentricity.
Check out this b&w photo from The New York Times/Paper Cuts when authorities got into the house after the reclusive brothers died: It’s a pack rat’s heaven, with floor to ceiling stuff.
In Doctorow’s fictional rendering, the older brother Langley saves all the newspapers he reads every day. His goal is to figure out how to create one universal edition that will remain eternally current and always up to date.
He also brings home mountains of junk to hoard, from useless furniture to miscellaneous machine parts, and even dismantles a car and puts it back together in the dining room.
The younger of the two, Homer, blind from childhood and a professional pianist, narrates the story with forgiveness of his brother’s oddity — Langley is mentally changed from exposure to mustard gas in WWI.
Doctorow uses major 20th Century events to move Homer & Langley forward. Homer narrates from Prohibition to the Depression to WWII and so on. The obvious stepping-stone effect at first felt cheap, but I forgave it because the brothers’ bizarre life is so invitingly imagined.
What I loved about these hermit, junk-loving brothers of upper class heritage is here, in what Homer says: “After all, we were living original self-directed lives unintimidated by convention – could we not be a supreming of the line, a flowering of the family tree?”
The real Collyer brothers died in 1947. There’s a park now where their house used to stand.
Random House provides an excerpt of Homer & Langley on their website.