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Homer and Langley (Doctorow)

Homer & Langley
E.L. Doctorow, 2009
Random House
208 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780812975635


Summary
Homer and Langley Collyer are brothers—the one blind and deeply intuitive, the other damaged into madness, or perhaps greatness, by mustard gas in the Great War.

They live as recluses in their once grand Fifth Avenue mansion, scavenging the city streets for things they think they can use, hoarding the daily newspapers as research for Langley’s proposed dateless newspaper whose reportage will be as prophecy.

Yet the epic events of the century play out in the lives of the two brothers—wars, political movements, technological advances—and even though they want nothing more than to shut out the world, history seems to pass through. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—January 6, 1931
Where—New York, New York, USA
Education—A.B., Kenyon College; Columbia University
Awards—3 National book Critics Circle Awards; National
   Book Aware; PEN/Faulkner Award
Currently—lives in Sag Harbor, New York and New York City


E.L. Doctorow, one of America's preeminent authors, has received the National Book Critics Circle Award (three times), the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Edith Wharton Citation For Fiction, and the William Dean Howells medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has also published a volume of selected essays Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution, and a play, Drinks Before Dinner, which was produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival. (From the publisher.)

More
Edgar Lawrence Doctorow is an American author whose critically acclaimed and award-winning fiction ranges through his country’s social history from the Civil War to the present. Doctorow was born in the Bronx, New York City, the son of second-generation Americans of Russian Jewish descent. He attended city public grade schools and the Bronx High School of Science where, surrounded by mathematically gifted children, he fled to the office of the school literary magazine, Dynamo, where he published his first literary effort, The Beetle, which he describes as ”a tale of etymological self-defamation inspired by my reading of Kafka.”

Doctorow attended Kenyon College in Ohio, where he studied with the poet and New Critic, John Crowe Ransom, acted in college theater productions and majored in Philosophy. After graduating with Honors in 1952 he did a year of graduate work in English Drama at Columbia University before being drafted into the army. He served with the Army of Occupation in Germany in 1954-55 as a corporal in the signal corps.

He returned to New York after his military service and took a job as a reader for a motion picture company where he said he had to read so many Westerns that he was inspired to write what became his first novel, Welcome to Hard Times. He began the work as a parody of the Western genre, but the piece evolved into a novel that asserted itself as a serious reclamation of the genre before he was through. It was published to positive reviews in 1960.

Doctorow had married a fellow Columbia drama student, Helen Setzer, while in Germany and by the time he had moved on from his reader’s job in 1960 to become an editor at the New American Library, (NAL) a mass market paperback publisher, he was the father of three children. To support his family he would spend nine years as a book editor, first at NAL working with such authors as Ian Fleming and Ayn Rand, and then, in 1964 as Editor-in-chief at The Dial Press, publishing work by James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, Ernest J. Gaines and William Kennedy, among others.

In 1969 Doctorow left publishing in order to write, and accepted a position as Visiting Writer at the University of California, Irvine, where he completed The Book of Daniel, a freely fictionalized consideration of the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for allegedly giving nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Published in 1971 it was widely acclaimed, called a “masterpiece” by The Guardian, and it launched Doctorow into "the first rank of American writers" according to the New York Times.

Doctorow’s next book, written in his home in New Rochelle, New York, was Ragtime (1975), since accounted one of the hundred best novels of the 20th century by the Modern Library Editorial Board.

Doctorow’s subsequent work includes the award winning novels World's Fair (1985), Billy Bathgate (1989), The March (2005) and Homer and Langley (2010); two volumes of short fiction, Lives of the Poets I (1984) and Sweetland Stories (2004); and two volumes of selected essays, Jack London, Hemingway, and the Constitution (1993) and Creationists (2006). He is published in over thirty languages. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews
As with his much admired novels The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Billy Bathgate and The March, Doctorow again creatively reconfigures and amplifies the historical record…There's a briskness to Homer & Langley that never flags, and its solitary protagonists—two lost souls—possess a half-comical, half-nightmarish fascination. They seem, at once, symbols of both American materialism and of American loneliness. Think of Melville's "isolatoes," or of all those forlorn men in shirt sleeves and the dispirited women of Edward Hopper's paintings, or of Hank Williams singing "I'm so lonesome I could cry."
Michael Dirda - Washington Post


Doctorow paints on a sweeping historical canvas, imagining the Collyer brothers as witness to the aspirations and transgressions of 20th century America; yet this book’s most powerfully moving moments are the quiet ones, when the brothers relish a breath of cool morning air, and each other’s tragically exclusive company.
O Magazine


Doctorow, whose literary trophy shelf has got to be overflowing by now, delivers a small but sweeping masterpiece about the infamous New York hermits, the Collyer brothers. When WWI hits and the Spanish flu pandemic kills Homer and Langley's parents, Langley, the elder, goes to war, with his Columbia education and his "godlike immunity to such an ordinary fate as death in a war." Homer, alone and going blind, faces a world "considerably dimmed" though "more deliciously felt" by his other senses. When Langley returns, real darkness descends on the eccentric orphans: inside their shuttered Fifth Avenue mansion, Langley hoards newspaper clippings and starts innumerable science projects, each eventually abandoned, though he continues to imagine them in increasingly bizarre ways, which he then recites to Homer. Occasionally, outsiders wander through the house, exposing it as a living museum of artifacts, Americana, obscurity and simmering madness. Doctorow's achievement is in not undermining the dignity of two brothers who share a lush landscape built on imagination and incapacities. It's a feat of distillation, vision and sympathy.
Publishers Weekly


A young man leading a privileged life in early 1900s New York goes blind. His brother goes to war and returns home a different person, reckless yet reclusive after being gassed. Their parents, never a strong presence in their lives, languish and die, and so Homer and Langley are left on their own in a Fifth Avenue apartment that slowly decays as Langley stacks it with all manner of rubbish he lovingly collects. Langley has mad schemes—he wants to publish a newspaper that needs only one issue, encapsulating all that's worth knowing—but he sees with stark clarity what's wrong with the world. Homer, a sensitive pianist, sticks with Langley. Together, through Homer's failed liaison with a housemaid, the death of longtime servants, and the internment of their Japanese housekeepers during World War II, the brothers age, their lives summing up a fading 20th-century America. This novel defines quiet desperation, captured with such precision ... that it can be a dispiriting read—as, one thinks, the author intended. The ending is wrenchingly poignant. Verdict: Doctorow in a minor key but as accomplished as ever. —Barbara Hoffert
Library Journal


Wizardly Doctorow presents an ingenious, haunting odyssey that unfolds within a labyrinth built out of the detritus of war and excess.
Booklist


Brothers live together in a decaying New York City mansion as history marches on in the latest from Doctorow (The March, 2005, etc.). Brothers Homer and Langley share a moneyed childhood in relative bliss, although narrator Homer is slowly going blind. Then both Homer's parents succumb to the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918, shortly before older brother Langley returns from service in World War I damaged by mustard gas. Increasingly eccentric (or deranged), Langley devotes his life to organizing articles from the newspapers he collects and never throws away. Homer's musical ambitions never come to much. Nor do his romantic affairs. Langley's one marriage is a disaster. But the brothers' lives touch on history, or its surface accoutrements, with a vengeance. Homer plays accompaniment for silent movies. Langley drives a Model T into the dining room. In the '20s they frequent speakeasies, where they meet a stereotypical gangster playboy who by the '50s has become more of a stereotypical Mafioso. Their African-American cook has a New Orleans jazz musician grandson. During the Depression the brothers throw "tea dances" to make extra money. The FBI whisk away a nice Japanese couple in the brothers' employ to a World War II internment camp. By the '50s Langley has acquired a television and a typewriter collection. By the '60s the brothers are taking in hippies as well as feral cats. Later Homer is dismayed to discover the young girl he once mentored as a musician and secretly loved has become an activist nun murdered in South America. As the brothers' funds shrink and the Fifth Avenue mansion they inherited falls into decay, the parallel to Gray Gardens comes to mind, particularly since an aging Homer types his memories on a Braille typewriter for a French journalist named Jacqueline. Usually a master at incorporating history into rich fiction, Doctorow offers few insights here and a narrator/hero who is never more than a cipher.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. There were several unusual sets of people who came into Homer and Langley's lives. Do you feel that Homer collected people the way that he collected objects? Why do you suppose that is or is not?

2. What do you think of Langley's Theory of Replacements? Given today's 24-hour news environment in which historical context is rarely addressed, does Langley's theory and perspective have some merit?

3. Langley is obsessive in his quest to create one universal newspaper of "seminal events". What categories were used by Langley so that the newspaper would be "eternally current, dateless"?  What categories would you add or change? Why?

4. What effect did the war have on Langley — did he come back mentally damaged along with his medical problems? How would the brothers' lives have been different if there had been no war?

5. Discuss the importance of Jacqueline in the story. Would the story have been as effective without this "muse"? Do you think she really existed?

6. On page 76 Homer talks about how things were for him when he and Langley returned to the house after their night in jail. He said, "this time marked the beginning of our abandonment of the outer world." He also said that for the first time he felt that his sightlessness was a physical deformity. What was it about the night in jail, the end of their community dances, and/or their return home that caused such a drastic shift in their lives?

7. One of the novel's themes is isolation/a feeling of being separate from the world. Some characters do this by choice, others not.  Discuss how Homer, Langley, and their various houseguests feel isolated from the world around them.

8. In what ways is the house a character as well as the setting? How does the house's condition reflect the brothers' physical and mental conditions?

9. The brothers' paranoia became ever-increasing, causing them to lay booby traps and close themselves in with physical as well as emotional shutters. Homer's last thoughts were, I wish I could go crazy so I might not know how badly off I am. Could Homer and Langley have been "saved" from themselves?

10. The book is told from Homer's point of view. Why do you think the author chose Homer to tell the story of the brothers?  How did Homer's disability affect his telling of the story? How would the story be different if Langley had been the voice?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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