E.L. Doctorow is known for writing huge, sprawling epics of the American past, stories where historical luminaries rub elbows with unnamed major characters, and the very fact of living in a bygone America is presented so matter-of-factly that the modern world drifts away. His gorgeously wrought Homer & Langley is a departure, as it’s a tiny tale about two brothers who live through the sweep of history and never leave their house.
Doctorow uses a historical curiosity as a jumping-off point for the novel yet again, this time examining the lives of the Collyer brothers, famous recluses who holed away in a Fifth Avenue brownstone in mid-20th-century New York. Doctorow extends the brothers’ lives well into the ’70s (in reality, they died in 1947) and shifts the chronology around on other events, but for the most part, he sticks close to the facts, finding the mournfulness inherent in the story of two men who had every advantage in the world, and chose to use none of them.
In the writing, Doctorow has set himself up with two monumental tasks. First, the book rarely leaves the house, and even then, only escapes to Central Park across the street. Second, the point of view is always filtered through the blind brother, Homer, which requires that Doctorow describe everything via any means other than visual detail. He does this so well that he’s well past his halfway point before it becomes clear what he’s doing at all. Doctorow’s portraits of poor, lovelorn Homer and philosophical but mentally ill Langley grow more compelling as the book lingers, creating a sense of a mounting inability to step back and realize just how monumental the two brothers’ problems have gotten.
Doctorow tosses out deeply felt, oddball observations on humanity and how humans treat each other on seemingly every other page, and even as Homer & Langley starts to run out of steam in its last quarter, he finds ways to make the brothers’ plight stand in for a country increasingly wrapped in chaos of its own making. Late in the novel, Langley describes the brothers’ house as a road, bringing them in contact with all manner of people, and it’s as good a description for history as Doctorow has come up with: not a definite place that can be visited, but a river, always slipping through people’s fingers.