It comes as a surprise to find E. L. Doctorow—an author celebrated for his dense, panoramic historical novels—working on a small, almost delicate scale in Homer & Langley, his newest book. In a career spanning nearly 50 years, Doctorow has always put his signature blend of fact and fiction to big uses—perhaps most famously in Ragtime, his vivid portrait of the early years of the 20th century, and most recently in The March, which tracked General Sherman's push to Atlanta at the close of the Civil War. The new novel, by contrast, is almost entirely housebound.
It soon becomes clear, however, that Doctorow has found a fresh angle: Rather than setting off in search of history, he's discovered a way to make history come to him.
Homer & Langley takes its inspiration from the story of the Collyer brothers, a pair of notorious eccentrics whose fanatical hoarding of newspapers, books, and various types of junk (broken gramophones, 14 pianos, the chassis of a Model T) made them New York's poster children of obsessive-compulsive behavior. By 1947 their Harlem brownstone had filled with so much trash—more than 100 tons of the stuff—that it literally overwhelmed them. One brother, upon triggering his own burglar trap, was crushed beneath a mountain of fallen rubbish; the other, hemmed in by debris, died of starvation.
In Doctorow's hands, the story of the Collyers becomes an elegant, often pointed commentary on the American century. The author signals his sharpened focus in the opening lines of the novel, as his narrator, Homer Collyer, loses his vision by slow degrees. There is no self-pity in Homer's tone, only a practical, even detached fascination: "The houses over to Central Park West went first, they got darker as if dissolving into the dark sky until I couldn't make them out, and then the trees began to lose their shape, and then finally… all I could see were these phantom shapes of the ice skaters floating past me on a field of ice, and then the white ice, that last light, went gray and then altogether black, and then all my sight was gone though I could hear clearly the scoot scut of the blades on the ice, a very satisfying sound…"
Adjusting to his blindness, Homer discovers that many of life's experiences are "more deliciously felt" in his new circumstances. His brother Langley, meanwhile, has undergone his own transformation on the battlefields of World War I, returning home badly scarred (and perhaps unhinged). When the brothers' parents die in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, Homer struggles with the growing "emotional disorder" of the household, a state of affairs he attributes to both anarchy and evolutionary change: "The one was the world falling to pieces, the other was only the inevitable creep of time, which was what we had now in this house, I decided, the turning over of the seconds and minutes of life to show its ever new guise. This was my rationalization for doing nothing."
As those seconds and minutes turn over, countless outsiders are pulled into Homer and Langley's orbit—immigrants, society figures, gangsters, jazz musicians, prostitutes—each offering a glimpse of the changing world beyond the walls of the brownstone. Major world events are signaled by their impact on the increasingly hermetic household: The brothers hold tea dances during the Depression years; a pair of Japanese housekeepers are sent to an internment camp during World War II.
As the events pile up, Doctorow takes some of the more notable eccentricities of the real-life Collyer brothers and re-imagines them within the framework of his story, giving their bizarre comportment a sort of internal logic and dignity.
The Collyers were especially notorious for hoarding newspapers by the ton, an obsession that Doctorow embraces as the "major project" of Langley's life, an effort to create a "timeless newspaper" that will distill all of human experience into a single formula: "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." Sure, it's crazy, but it's a brilliant kind of crazy, like Borges with a New York attitude.
Though the real-life Collyers died in 1947, Doctorow extends their lifespan into the era of Vietnam, the Jonestown massacre, and beyond. Set against these upheavals, their conduct begins to seem less outlandish. When the brothers, bedraggled and long-haired, come across a group of hippies, they are hailed as fellow travelers: "It was as if," Homer says, "we'd been inducted into a relaxed and sophisticated fellowship, an advanced society, where ordinary proprieties were square… I considered the possibility, after drinking too much of their bad wine, that my brother and I were, willy-nilly and ipso facto, prophets of a new age."
Soon enough, however, the summer of love passes them by, as if the outside world "had withdrawn its ambassadors." As the brothers seal themselves off forever in their fortress of junk, Homer pauses to ask Langley how he would chronicle their doings in the timeless newspaper he has been trying to create: "We are sui generis, Homer, he said. Unless someone comes along as remarkably prophetic as we are, I'm obliged to ignore our existence."
They are certainly sui generis—in a category of their own—but not to be ignored. Homer & Langley is one of E. L. Doctorow's finest novels—small in scale, perhaps, but in Homer's phrase, all the more "deliciously felt."
Mystery novelist Daniel Stashower, the winner of two Edgar Awards, is the author of The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Invention of Murder. He previously reviewed John Irving's Last Night in Twisted River for AARP The Magazine Online.