Review: Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow

Title:Homer and Langley
Author: E.L. Doctorow
Pages: 256
Genre: Literary Fiction
Release Date: September 1, 2009
Publisher: Random House
Source: Borrowed

After reading Beth at Bookworm Meets Bookworm's review of Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mothers Compulsive Hoarding by Jessica Sholl, I was reminded of a book I read a few months ago called Homer and Langley. The feelings this novel left me with were both dark and depressing. Just the thought of being surrounded by piles of junk and filth makes me cringe, and Doctorow supplies enough description to keep me on the edge of repulsion.

The premise of this compact novel centers around an old blind man as he types out the story of the life that he and his brother created in their Fifth Avenue brownstone. Both pack rats in different ways, their home is bursting at the seams with the physical memories of their existence. It was only after I finished this work that I realized that Doctorow had produced a fictional re-telling of the real lives of two New York City recluses. For me, it was better to read the story for the work of fiction that it is instead of knowing the biographies of the real Collyer brothers. After doing some research, I found out that a lot of liberties were taken by the author.

Ultimately, the success of the story lies upon the character of Homer. Given that he is blind, I worried that the story would be pushed aside by lengthy descriptions of person, place or thing to make up for the lack of sight, but, luckily, that wasn't the case. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to connect with any of the characters. Maybe it was intentional, but I felt like Doctorow left a certain emotional distance, making them feel more like strangers. Even though the characters lack in likability, Doctorow manages to create a narrator whose story is a concise, thoughtful and self-aware examination of the human condition and one's existence within a larger society.
People pass out of one's life and all you can remember of them is their humanity, a poor fitful thing of no dominion, like your own.
It is through Homer's metaphorical eyes that we see the passage of time and come to understand the ultimate idea that "everything alive is at war," especially with oneself. Over time, the brothers slowly withdraw from society, and instead of participating they become outsiders. The ironic part is that, even though they refuse to leave their home, the brothers, especially Homer, become more educated and aware of events happening in the world via newspapers and eventually the television than many other citizens.

Homer and Langley was an interesting trip into the past and into the mind that left me quite anxious and uncomfortable. I will probably still be contemplating this story for a while. Since I did enjoy the writing style, I will be looking into Doctorow's other books in the hopes of finding another well-written journey, but hopefully with more engaging characters. For now, I will leave you with some images, courtesy of the New York Times, of the real Collyer brother's brownstone when they were finally forced to leave. Quite cringe-worthy if you ask me.


  1. Jenna, It's so funny that you posted on this book! A post I did yesterday, Why Read?, links to a NY Times article that references Homer & Langley (link below). It sounds like an interesting read--I like your review!

  2. I tend to love books that make me feel uncomfortable afterward. I figure that if it stretches my mind, I'm learning. I do have to space that type of book out in my reading, though, and fill the gaps with some fluff once in a while! Great review. I'm intrigued.

  3. Wow, that does sound like an intense read. I've only read one book by Doctorow, Ragtime. I remember really enjoying it, but since I read it about eight years ago I couldn't tell you many specifics... It does have some interesting stylistic choices, like never using quotation marks.

    Thanks for sharing this review!

  4. Brooke - Thanks for stopping by! I'll definitely check out that article.

    Julie - My favorite books are always the ones that make me feel something...whether it's excited, confused, uncomfortable, or anywhere in between. If I don't come away with some emotional reaction, I almost feel like I've wasted my time...since I'm the exact same as before beginning a book.

    Rayna - I definitely noticed the no quotation marks for the dialogue. At least he skips lines for different speakers, or I might have been very confused.

  5. I agree with Julie. The books that make me uncomfortable tend to stick in my mind!

  6. I had no idea that this book was an account of the two. I've always wanted to read it and after reading Sholl's memoir I certainly have to now. I like that you provided some pictures- I'll admit that I'm going to go get lost in wikipedia. Insane!


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