The bachelor Collyer brothers, of a respected family, were reclusive hoarders who lived in a Manhattan brownstone. After their bodies were found in 1947 more than a hundred tons of trash was removed from their house. Doctorow has taken the historical pair and put them to other uses. He looks at a wide swath of 20th century American history through the windows of their Fifth Avenue house, extending their lives beyond 1947, swapping some details between the brothers, and tossing in a cast of illustrative characters.
Homer and Langley Collyer are brothers. Homer is mysteriously blinded as a teen, while Langley’s health is seriously compromised when he is gassed in the trenches of World War I. Characters come into and out of focus, standing in for the events of sundry decades. The brothers’ parents are taken in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. A lefty girlfriend is deported in the Palmer Raids of the 1920s. We get a look at a Prohibition gangster. Rent raising dances are held during the Depression. Japanese servants are taken away during World War II. Jewish representatives come by, raising money for the poor souls in Europe who are suffering at the hands of you-know-who. The grandson of the family cook, a Tuskegee airman, is killed in North Africa. The fifties arrive in the form of Senate hearings and TV game shows. The 60s features a moon landing, hippies, a concert on the Great Lawn, a bit of free love, and references to some of the other seminal events of the time. Doctorow takes some license with the events, placing a 1980 atrocity in El Salvador next to the Jonestown event of 1978, next to the Baptist church bombing of 1963, next to the New York city blackout of 1965. Whatever.
While it was a fast, and somewhat engaging read, I never felt totally drawn in by Homer (the primary character here) or Langley. They were so obviously serving as structural devices for the larger purpose. There were times when one felt for Homer, but then it was off to a recounting of the century again. I felt as if the book were largely a Powerpoint presentation of the century with Homer and Langley as the background graphic.
Not a bad read, or one completely lacking the ability to draw one in, but once one was
drawn in, the tale and characters were not attractive enough to justify sticking around. Homer and Langley
seems mostly an intellectual exercise. It does strike me, though, that in the hands of a top-notch film-maker it might make a fascinating bit of cinema.