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What We’re Reading: Homer & Langley

Post by Bethany Latham
Posted October 22, 2013 in NoveList Plus

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Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow
ISBN: 9781400064946

The first episode of Hoarders I watched provoked an immediate desire to a) never watch another and b) scrub my house from top to bottom, organize every closet, and give half my worldly possessions to the Goodwill. It also made me wonder: how does someone go from “normal” to burying themselves alive in useless junk? Homer & Langley charts such a journey. 

The Homer and Langley in question are the Collyer brothers, legends in the annals of New York society. They were educated and wealthy, occupying an elegant Gilded Age mansion on Fifth Avenue. After their parents’ death, they became increasingly eccentric and reclusive until, by the 1930s, their decaying brownstone was filled with tons of…stuff: baby carriages, newspapers, a Model T – every room, floor to ceiling, packed by compulsive hoarding. In 1947, police were forced to dig their way through tons of garbage to reach Homer, who was found dead. An intensive search for Langley lasted over a month, until his body was also discovered, crushed to death under piles of junk. 

Doctorow’s version of the two brothers’ lives is mostly imagination: he conflates timelines in order to allow the brothers to experience everything from the Great War to the political movements of the ‘60s. His take on the Collyers is narrated by the blind Homer; while bearing little resemblance to the real individuals, the tale is creative, and answers the question of how someone slides into reclusivity and hoarding. It’s a fascinating and tragic picture of a shared world, a folie à deux, where logic is inapplicable, but everything makes perfect sense to the two entombed within the crumbling mansion. It’ll also provide that little push you’ve been needing to motivate yourself to clean out your closets. Recommended by Bethany Latham.

Bethany M. Latham, Associate Professor and Electronic Resources/Documents Librarian at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama, is Managing Editor of the Historical Novels Review.