Monday, February 8, 2010

Homer and Langley, by E.L. Doctorow

It is hard for me to talk about this book without overusing the word 'amazing'. I absolutely loved it. I'd been looking forward to it for months, which can of course lead to 'it's not as good as it sounded' disappointment (see Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), but I was charmed and my hope validated. I love to be reminded that there is a reason that really famous authors are so, well, famous. This is a story told by a master of the art.

Where I heard about this book
: It was all over the literary news by the time it appeared on booksellers' shelves.

What I thought of this book
: Perfect.

What this book is about
: This is a fictionalized account of the lives of Homer and Langley Collyer. They were New York brothers famous for practically barricading themselves for decades in their Fifth Avenue mansion as it disintegrated around them. They were hoarders; after their deaths in 1947 over 130 tons of debris was removed from the house, which had to be demolished. Recluses and hoarders! Ripe fodder for fiction. The incredible thing about this novel is that it is written with such delicacy and grace. The story is told by Langley, the younger brother, who is blind. He interprets his situation without being able to see it, year after year. The eccentricities of his brother and the accumulation of objects in the house both seem somehow reasonable as told from his perspective. As I imagine is the case for any recluses and hoarders. It's the insider view that makes this story so compelling.

I am sometimes nervous about reading fictionalized accounts of history - I am afraid that I will come to believe that it is truth, and forget that a lot of it is made up. This account of the Collyer brothers may bear little resemblance to the actual men. It is, however, an accurate picture of a family. Not a normal one, but a family fueled by love and in which the quirks and oddities just play out to a more exaggerated end than for most. We should all be so lucky as to have our lives re-imagined for us by E. L. Doctorow!

Here is the Wikipedia entry for the Collyer brothers. You can see why E. L. Doctorow was inspired by their story, which is one he grew up with. I was originally captivated by the idea of recluse/hoarders, but I was unprepared for how un-sensationalist the book is. Hooray for great novels!

Have you been dying to know? The E in E.L. stands for Edgar. Using initials instead of names puts both Doctorow and Salinger firmly into my pantheon of sexy authors.

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