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Homer & Langley: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 1, 2009

4.0 out of 5 stars 265 customer reviews

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Amazon Exclusive: E.L. Doctorow on Homer & Langley

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. Read his exclusive Amazon essay on Homer & Langley:

I was a teenager when the Collyer brothers were found dead in their Fifth Avenue brownstone. Instantly, they were folklore. And so there is the real historical existence of them and the mythological existence--two existences, as with Abe Lincoln, though of a less exalted standing. I didn’t know at the time that I would someday write about them, but even then I felt there was some secret to the Collyers--there was something about them still to be discovered under the piles of things in their house--the bales of newspapers and the accumulated detritus of their lives. Was it only that they were junk-collecting eccentrics? You see that every day in the streets of New York. They had opted out--that was the primary fact. Coming from a well-to-do family, with every advantage, they had locked the door and closed the shutters and absented themselves from the life around them. A major move, as life-transforming as emigration. In fact it was a form of emigration, of leave-taking. But where to? What country was within that house? What would have caused them to become the notorious recluses of Fifth Avenue? As myths, the brothers demanded not research but interpretation, and when a few years ago I was finally moved to do this book, I felt as if writing it was an act of breaking and entering just to see what may have been going on in that house, which really meant getting inside two very interesting minds. And with the first sentence, “I’m Homer, the blind brother,” I was in.

In one sense I think of Homer & Langley as a road novel--as if they are two people traveling together down a road and having adventures, though in fact they are housebound. It turns out that the world will not let them alone--others intrude on their privacy as if it is the road running through them. As for their collecting, I think of them as curators of their life and times, and their house as a museum of all our lives. That is my idea of them, that is my reading of the Collyer myth. I make them to be two brothers who opted out of civilization and pulled the world in after them.--E.L. Doctorow

(Photo © Philip Friedman)

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Doctorow, whose literary trophy shelf has got to be overflowing by now, delivers a small but sweeping masterpiece about the infamous New York hermits, the Collyer brothers. When WWI hits and the Spanish flu pandemic kills Homer and Langley's parents, Langley, the elder, goes to war, with his Columbia education and his godlike immunity to such an ordinary fate as death in a war. Homer, alone and going blind, faces a world considerably dimmed though more deliciously felt by his other senses. When Langley returns, real darkness descends on the eccentric orphans: inside their shuttered Fifth Avenue mansion, Langley hoards newspaper clippings and starts innumerable science projects, each eventually abandoned, though he continues to imagine them in increasingly bizarre ways, which he then recites to Homer. Occasionally, outsiders wander through the house, exposing it as a living museum of artifacts, Americana, obscurity and simmering madness. Doctorow's achievement is in not undermining the dignity of two brothers who share a lush landscape built on imagination and incapacities. It's a feat of distillation, vision and sympathy. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (September 1, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400064945
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400064946
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 0.9 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (265 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #349,212 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Homer and Langley Collyer were real people. These two brothers were found dead in their Harlem apartment in 1947. They were pack rats. Or, at least Langley was. When their brownstone revealed a hundred tons of newspapers and junk inside, stuff like an old car, the public was amazed and fascinated. Their story has been the stuff of legend ever since.

Doctorow imagines their story as fiction - he furnishes the telling details about their family - the twists and turns that led them to their lonely fates. They live longer in his version by at least 20 some years. There is a wonderful section where hippies move in with them for a bit. They have love affairs. The blind one, Homer, tells the story and Doctorow allows us to share the visions observed with Homer's supposedly sightless eyes.

Michiko Kakutani panned the book today in the NY Times. That's good. When Michiko hates on a book I often love it. And I loved this one. Doctorow's pithy trip down memory lane with these two loveable oddballs is strangely exhilarating.

Homer is a sweetheart, so gentle. Langley is powerful and brilliant. They make for quite a pair.
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Format: Hardcover
I've long been fascinated by Homer and Langley story. I first heard their tale, twisted though it was, on a Ripley's Believe it or Not years ago. Over the years they would find mention in the odd article here and there. I was very happy to see that E. L. Doctorow devoted a book to them, though it is, after-all a fictional account. Still, Homer and Langley is worth reading.

As in all cases when an author turns a true story into a novel, the reader has to be careful about how much they should actually believe. I was completely convinced by Doctorow's treatment of these two sympathetic misfits. He does a masterful job at taking their story and then creating a world that the story can proceed in.

Two brothers inherit the plush 5th Avenue home of their parents and move in. It isn't long before their odd behavior begins to isolate them from their neighbors. During the ensuing years, Homer quietly goes blind relying on Langley to take care of him. Langley does take care of Homer, but also manages to stuff their plush home full of odd items collected over the years. Not only are odd items hidden in the Harlem brownstone, but Langley saves newspapers and magazines galore. For those of you not familiar with the story, you'll need to read Homer and Langley to see what happens.

Doctorow does plays with time just a bit, moving the story a few years. However, within the confines of the tale, time is relative and in this case simply doesn't matter. Doctorow also chooses to let the story play out and end in pretty much the same way the real one did and I congratulate him for that.

One final thought. For some reason, E. L. Doctorow is always a challenge for me to read. I suspect the difficulty is with me and probably related to his style.
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Format: Hardcover
I was 16 years old and living on the Upper West Side when the Collyer brothers were found dead in their formerly grand townhouse. The newspapers were filled for months with descriptions of all the outlandish items and tons of newspapers they hoarded in their decrepit mansion, so that the police had to enter the house through the roof because the hallways were so tightly blocked.

So I was eager to read this new version of their story, and really wanted to love it. Immediately I was surprised at how short it - 208 pages for such a fertile subject. Doctorow is a much-respected, prizewinning author, so I expected a fully-fleshed-out story of the two well-educated men from a well-off family, who ended up as these poor souls did. Why did they live and die as they did? Sadly, the book seemed very pedestrian and lacking in imagination to me. I also wonder why he placed them about 20 years later in time than their actual lifespans. To include Japanese internment, the postwar years and even VietNam? To give the author an excuse for not imagining what happend to them in what he considered the less-interesting times in which they actually lived?

In 1954, just 7 years after their discovery, the respected author Marcia Davenport's book, "My Brother's Keeper", came out. A fictionalized but fully realized and beautiful novel based on these men and their tragic ending, it gave one of many possible answers to the question everyone asked, "What could have caused it?" She wove a fully rounded story - using but not not citing facts, and giving them full lives and personalities that provided logical reasons for their insatiable collecting of seemingly random stuff: pianos,the car,costumes, newspapers, etc., and inevitably led them in a natural progression to their tragic ending, as she imagined it.
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Format: Hardcover
I really wanted to like HOMER & LANGLEY. And I did, to the extent that it was a decent story. But I would have liked it more, had there not been a REAL Homer and Langley, whose strange and sad lives served only as sort of a template for author E.L. Doctorow.

The actual brothers were born in the 1880s, and died a few days apart in 1947. They lived in a large apartment/mansion in Harlem that belonged to their parents, and in this home they managed to accumulate over 130 *TONS* of junk, ranging from pianos and newspapers to bicycles and even a Model-T Ford.

The 'characters' in the novel were born about twenty years later, have been reversed in age (Homer is now the younger one, for reasons that escape me), and survive almost to the 21st century. This latter change afforded Doctorow the opportunity to place H&L into "situations" that were obviously never part of the real brother's lives. Such as hanging out and smoking pot with a group of hippies.

It made for an interesting story, but again, my issue is that the true story needs no embellishment.

For a better look at the real Homer and Langley Collyer, consider Franz Lidz's book GHOSTY MEN. (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/158234311X/ref=olp_product_details?ie=UTF8&me=&seller=) Although Lidz fills half of the book with the story of his uncle Arthur (also a chronic junk-hoarder), at least the facts about Homer and Langley are accurate.

- Jonathan Sabin
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