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Homer and Langley by E. L. Doctorow
This E. L. Doctorow effort is kinda sorta a trip through the first-three quarters of the 20th century seen through the eyes of two reclusive and wealthy brothers - one blind, who narrates, and one a WWI veteran with damaged lungs and a damaged psyche owing to enduring a gas attack in the trenches.
Homer and Langley Collyer are the sons of a well-to-do and socially prominent physician, but the loss of sight for teenage Homer, the aforementioned WWI scars for Langley and the early death of their parents left these two boys adrift and alienated in the world. Had they not inherited sufficient funds to free them from work, reality might have forced a normalcy on them, but instead, these two examples of the broken idle rich became, over time, quasi-reclusive hoarders.
From their Fifth Avenue mansion, we see these young men partake in the speakeasy party culture of the twenties, even meeting an up-and-coming gangster who rewards their friendship with a gift of champagne and hookers for the evening. The gifts, despite some compunction, were accepted. Blind Homer, in particular, deeply enjoyed the prostitute as he did his first sexual experience, years earlier, with the family's Irish maid.
During the Depression of the thirties, the boys see the labor protests and encampments of homeless men living in Central Park right outside their mansion's front door. After that, it's on to World War II where Homer, who has made a remarkable adjustment to his blindness, feels his disability greatly for one of the first times as he can make no contribution to the war effort. Conversely, his brother's always-present bitterness toward the world grows with the onset of another global war.
After the war, whose end provides hoarder Langley with an opportunity to stuff the house full of military surplus, the fifties finds the boys more isolated. In the funniest scene in the novel, these two oddballs become hostages to the gift-giving mobster of the twenties when he uses their house, by force, as a hideout for several days while he recovers from a bullet wound received in a failed hit attempt. After a day or so, the gangsters stop guarding the boys as they realize these nutjobs are no threat to them, so everyone goes about their days as if the mobsters and Collyer brothers just happen to be living together.
With Langley's hoarding increasing - he gets on jags for everything from typewriters to art supplies to a Model T and, always, newspapers - and with their bill paying further in arrears - owing to some quirky principle, not because of lack of funds - the house deteriorates to a state many would find unlivable. But the boys persevere into the sixties, even taking in several hippies during the Summer of Love in a quirky moment of Roaring Twenties outcasts meet Flower Power children.
After a sexual encounter for Homer with one of the free-love young-women guests, the coming cold weather sees the departure of their hippie friends.Then, it's the seventies, a further decline in the house, especially when the power and water are cut off as the boys continue to refuse, on principle, to pay their bills. A brief period of unwanted media notoriety follows, then finally, the inevitable passing of the brothers.
So what is it all about? On one level, as noted, it's a trip through the 20th century as seen through the eyes of two outcasts who are less-naive Forrest Gumps. It can also be seen as broken people being the ones who see the insanity of the world, but there's also a cheapness to this sentiment as we all are, for example, against war and hate to see young men (and women, today) die in battle, but sentiment won't stop the Hitlers and Stalins of the world.
More narrowly, it's a contrast of a man damaged by failing genes causing a loss of sight being more normal than his brother who was damaged physically and mentally in war. While it appears Langley is taking care of his blind brother, one feels blind Homer could have found a more-normal place in the world - a job (he's a talented pianist) and wife would have made him happy - but he knew his brother needed to take care of him. So, counterintuitively, it is the war-damaged brother who was emotionally dependent on the blind brother.
Maybe it's about hoarders as the junk collectors of our culture - or some such college-term-paper stuff. Or perhaps it simply adds up to a commentary on the absurdity of life. Doctorow is a talented enough author to pull this peculiar novel off, but he's written much better books.
I'll put this one on the list to be read, but it's going to be a bit down on the list! Got a lot of good books waiting on the bookshelves and calling my name...I can't believe I have five Baldacci books I have yet to read? In any event, thanks for another great and persuasive review.