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