Synopses & Reviews
and Billy Bathgate
to The Book of Daniel, Worlds Fair,
and The March
, the novels of E. L. Doctorow comprise one of the most substantive achievements of modern American fiction. Now, with Homer & Langle
y, this master novelist has once again created an unforgettable work.
Homer and Langley Collyer are brothers–the one blind and deeply intuitive, the other damaged into madness, or perhaps greatness, by mustard gas in the Great War. They live as recluses in their once grand Fifth Avenue mansion, scavenging the city streets for things they think they can use, hoarding the daily newspapers as research for Langleys proposed dateless newspaper whose reportage will be as prophecy. Yet the epic events of the century play out in the lives of the two brothers–wars, political movements, technological advances–and even though they want nothing more than to shut out the world, history seems to pass through their cluttered house in the persons of immigrants, prostitutes, society women, government agents, gangsters, jazz musicians . . . and their housebound lives are fraught with odyssean peril as they struggle to survive and create meaning for themselves.
Brilliantly conceived, gorgeously written, this mesmerizing narrative, a free imaginative rendering of the lives of New Yorks fabled Collyer brothers, is a family story with the resonance of myth, an astonishing masterwork unlike any that have come before from this great writer.
From the Hardcover edition.
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE, THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH, THE KANSAS CITY STAR, AND BOOKLIST
Homer and Langley Collyer are brothers—the one blind and deeply intuitive, the other damaged into madness, or perhaps greatness, by mustard gas in the Great War. They live as recluses in their once grand Fifth Avenue mansion, scavenging the city streets for things they think they can use, hoarding the daily newspapers as research for Langley’s proposed dateless newspaper whose reportage will be as prophecy. Yet the epic events of the century play out in the lives of the two brothers—wars, political movements, technological advances—and even though they want nothing more than to shut out the world, history seems to pass through their cluttered house in the persons of immigrants, prostitutes, society women, government agents, gangsters, jazz musicians . . . and their housebound lives are fraught with odyssean peril as they struggle to survive and create meaning for themselves.
E. L. Doctorow’s novels include The March, City of God, The Waterworks, Welcome to Hard Times, The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, Lives of the Poets, World’s Fair, and Billy Bathgate. His work has been published in thirty-two languages. Among his honors are the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, two PEN/Faulkner awards, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. E. L. Doctorow lives in New York.
The master of historical fiction ("Vanity Fair") spans the early part of the 20th century through the 1980s as seen through the warped lens of the infamous Collyer brothers, whose strange and intriguing story encapsulates much of the era's turmoil, accomplishment, and great change.
Reading Group Guide
1. Homer & Langley
was inspired by the real-life Collyer brothers—recluses who actually lived in a Fifth Avenue townhouse filled with rubble until their deaths in the late 1940s. Doctorow took some creative liberties in his retelling of their story—namely, extending the brothers’ lives by several decades. Why do you think Doctorow made these factual changes, and how would you say this affects the impact of their story as a whole?
2. Why do you think Doctorow chose to write from Homer’s point of view? How would the novel have been different if Langley was the narrator?
3. Homer and Langley lose their parents to Spanish influenza while Langley is abroad fighting in World War I. Do you think the brothers’ lives would have been different had their parents survived? How? How did the war affect Langley?
4. Describe Homer and Langley as individuals. How do they change over the course of the novel? How do their opinions of the outside world change? How does their relationship as brothers change?
5. Langley's hoarding escalates to a new level when he installs a Model T Ford car in the dining room. Grandmamma Robileaux thinks the appearance of the Ford is a sure sign that Langley is completely out of his mind. Homer says, “My brother is a brilliant man. There is some intelligent purpose behind this, I can assure you” (79). Is Homer right? Is there a purpose behind Langley’s compulsions? Or is he out of his mind, as Grandmamma fears?
6. A central component of the novel is Langley's "Theory of Replacements," which he explains to Homer before going off to war: “Everything in life gets replaced. We are our parents’ replacements just as they were replacements of the previous generation” (14). Langley continues to develop his theory throughout the novel, and it is the basis for the master newspaper he is creating, which will be "one day's edition of a newspaper that could be read forevermore as sufficient to any day thereof" (48). What do you make of Langley’s "Theory of Replacements"? How does it evolve throughout the course of the brothers' lives?
7. Several characters move in and out of the Collyers’ home over the years. Consider these individuals and the roles they played in the brothers’ lives: Julia, Siobhan, Grandmamma Robileaux, Harold Robileaux, Vincent, the Hoshiyamas, Lissy and her friends, and others. What did the brothers learn from these people? What did you learn about the brothers from their interactions with these individuals?
8. Things take a turn for the worse when Grandmamma Robileaux goes back to New Orleans. Homer reflects: “Grandmamma had been the last connection to our past. I had understood her as some referent moral authority to whom we paid no heed, but by whose judgments we measured our waywardness” (100). What do you make of this statement, knowing how things end up for the Collyer brothers? If Grandmamma had stayed in the house, would things have been different?
9. Homer loses his eyesight while he is still quite young, but his other senses are quite advanced. In conversation with his brother, Langley tells him, “Among the philosophers there is endless debate as to whether we see the real world or only the world as it appears in our minds, which is not necessarily the same thing” (47). Homer responds, “Well, maybe it’ll turn out I have eyes as good as anyone’s” (47). Discuss the issue of sight and perception, and how it plays out in the novel.
10. Until they are shut down by the police, the Collyer brothers host tea dances in their home as an opportunity for neighbors to drink, listen to music, and cut loose. How did you reconcile the reclusive figures at the end of the novel with the livelier men who hosted these neighborhood social events?
11. The brothers both have complicated—and ultimately unproductive—relationships with women throughout the book. Discuss the various women in their lives: from Julia to Mary Elizabeth Riordan to Lila van Dijk to Anna to Jacqueline. Why do you think neither man ever found lasting love?
12. What did you make of Homer’s relationship (or lack thereof) with Jacqueline Roux, his “muse”?
13. At the end of the novel, the brothers are together in the house, but alone with their thoughts in different rooms. The final sentence is chilling, as Homer asks, “Where is my brother?” (208). What did you think of novel’s conclusion?
14. Through the eyes of the Collyer brothers, Doctorow shows us a vision of New York City from the 1930s through the 1960's. Discuss the different eras and the historical significance of each.