Monday, February 18, 2013

Book Review: Homer and Langley by E. L. Doctorow

Homer and Langley

Author: E. L. Doctorow
Publisher: Random House
Date of Publication: September 1, 2009
Pages: 208 (Hardcover Edition)  

     Homer and Langley is a unique work of historical fiction, exquisitely written by celebrated author E. L. Doctorow.  The novel is loosely based on the true story of two brothers, sons of a wealthy New York physician.  They live in their parents' Fifth Avenue brownstone and as they age poorly witness 20th century history.  Each is impaired.  Homer, the younger brother, becomes blind as a youngster.  Langley, the elder, suffers severe lung damage as well as psychological impairment from a mustard gas injury while fighting in Europe during The Great War.  Langley descends into madness, becoming what today we would call a "hoarder" while Homer does his innocent, visually impaired best to cope with his brother's eccentricities and rationalize their increasingly bizarre lifestyle. 

     The uniqueness of this novel is on several levels.  Fist, the story is told in the first person by Homer, the blind brother.  Doctorow is a master of the writing craft who provides detailed and evocative descriptions during a novel-length story through a blind narrator and keep it interesting.  Doctorow actually goes beyond interesting, providing the reader with a very rich multisensory reading experience.  Secondly, the brothers poignantly and sometimes comically become swept into the events of their times, including Prohibition, politics, organized crime. another World War and, later, the anti Viet Nam war protests and counter-cultural youth movement of the '60s and '70s.  In a "Forest Gump" sort of way, history finds the Collyer brothers.  

     One recurring theme in Homer and Langley is that of human isolation and loneliness.  In the case of the Collyer brothers this was somewhat a matter of choice, although Langley's compulsions and paranoia contributed greatly.  The public perception of the Collyers as oddities is equal to the brothers' perception of the world as oppressive, dictatorial and judgmental.  The reader is left to ponder whose viewpoint is correct.

     Sometimes you finish reading a book and are glad you read it because of its great story.  Sometimes a particular character will resonate with you and make the book memorable.  When I finished reading Homer and Langley, however, I was glad that I had read it mainly because I realized I had just finished a virtuoso piece of writing - a clever, intuitive, insightful, humorous yet serious  tour de force piece of fiction.  The story is for sure very good, the characters are indeed unique and memorable, but it is the caliber of writing which jumps off the page and grabs you.  Read Homer and Langley, you will be glad that you did.

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