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Amid The Rubbish, Doctorow Finds Meaning

Sep 4, 2009

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In his 12th novel, Homer & Langley, the masterful E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime, Billy Bathgate) uses the real-life Collyer brothers as a jumping-off point for a kaleidoscopic trip through 20th century America. It's a wild ride — with a truly loopy narrator as guide.

The Collyers made headlines in 1947 when their bodies were discovered in a Fifth Avenue mansion chockablock with old newspapers and junk. More than 100 tons of rubbish were removed from their brownstone. The strange hermit brothers intrigued readers with their combination of folie a deux and clutter run amok. The 1954 bestseller My Brother's Keeper was inspired by the two, who had Columbia degrees and social pedigrees but lived in squalor.

Doctorow altered the literary landscape 35 years ago when he insinuated "real" characters like J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford and Harry Houdini into a fictional setting in Ragtime. He is back in the groove with Homer & Langley, manipulating time and waving his postmodern wand to make his fictionalized story of the brothers larger than life (and their lives longer by several decades).

Center stage is narrator Homer Collyer, the blind brother. "I didn't lose my sight all at once. It was like the movies, a slow fade-out," he notes. When the novel opens, he and older brother Langley live with their well-to-do parents. Homer, a self-styled "romantic young pianist with a Franz Liszt haircut," has a knack for erotic exploitation, beginning with dalliances with the young women his parents invite to tea. After his parents die suddenly in the Spanish flu epidemic, and while Langley is serving in World War I, Homer fires the butler and driver and beds the Hungarian maid. Langley, who was gassed at the front, returns a damaged man to find the household topsy-turvy.

Langley immerses himself in a decades-long project, obsessively collecting and hoarding newspapers. Matching categories of news against his own warped template, he hopes to develop an "eternally current dateless newspaper, "the only newspaper anyone would need." (Imagine if he'd had the Web.)

Throughout this new novel, we are diverted by the inimitable Doctorow mix of social history and pop culture from the end of the Victorian Age to the frenetic 1980s. Homer plays the piano for silent movies, befriends a gangster at a 1920s speakeasy, gives "tea dances" for cash during the Depression and stands with Langley at the top of their stoop as crowds celebrate the end of World War II. After a 1960s anti-war rally in Central Park, hippies crash in the mansion, and Homer imagines he and Langley are "prophets of a new age."

So who is Homer talking to in his off-kilter monologue? Doctorow answers that question in the final page of his slyly inventive, uproariously engaging new novel.

Jane Ciabattari's work has appeared in Bookforum, The Guardian online, The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and Columbia Journalism Review, among others. She is president of the National Book Critics Circle and author of the short-story collection Stealing the Fire. Recent short stories are online at KGB Bar Lit, Verbsap, Literary Mama and Lost magazine.

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