The notorious Collyer brothers lived like hermits in a Fifth Avenue brownstone packed to the rafters with newspapers and junk. With Homer & Langley, novelist E.L. Doctorow pays the boys a visit.
Author Aaron Gell Photography Marion Ettlinger / Corbis Outline
Few New Yorkers took much notice of the failed 2002 proposal by the Harlem Fifth Avenue Block Association that Collyer Brothers Park, a tiny uptown parcel, be renamed Reading Tree Park. But to E.L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime, Billy Bathgate and The March, among other historically minded novels, the bid to bury one of the city’s more fascinating chapters felt like an affront.
A pair of notorious hermits from a well-to-do family, the magnificently disheveled Homer and Langley Collyer occupied a stately Fifth Avenue brownstone filled with auto parts, pianos and other refuse scavenged from the city’s streets. Battling local authorities, bill collectors and neighbors, they became objects of intense tabloid fascination before being found dead in 1947. (Langley’s demise was especially poignant: He was felled by a booby trap of his own devising and buried under toppled bales of his newspapers.)
“They achieved a kind of mythic status,” Doctorow says of the subjects of his latest novel, Homer & Langley, sitting in his office overlooking Upper Sag Harbor Cove. “They became part of the folklore of the city.” The author bristles at the view of the brothers as “pack rats,” preferring to see them as “aggregators—sort of like Google.” In some ways, they resemble Doctorow himself, who has been known to make good literary use of scraps of history the rest of us overlook. “You do pick things up along the way and store them in your mind,” he says, admitting his home office could use tidying up. “My wife has compared me to the Collyers,” he says with a sigh.
In Doctorow’s fiction, however, there’s nary a word out of place. Homer & Langley is sparse and poetic, at times conjuring whole eras—the Jazz Age, the late ’60s—in just a few haunting passages. One of the book’s great pleasures is the way it casts a strange new light on American social history by essentially viewing it through the slats of the brothers’ shuttered windows. “I think of it as a road novel in which they don’t actually leave the house,” he says. “Instead, the world comes to them.”
Naturally, the author has taken a few liberties. For one, he’s extended the Collyers’ lives by several decades. “I’ve given them longevity,” he jokes, “and they didn’t even have to go on a diet!” He’s also relocated their townhouse a good mile south on Fifth Avenue, to the Upper East Side. The brothers’ former neighbors would surely approve.
Hemispheres editor in chief Aaron Gell really ought to straighten up his workspace.
What else to read on the go in September
The Coral Thief – A Scottish medical student delves into the intellectual ferment in post-Revolutionary Paris in Rebecca Stott’s provocative new novel, a swirl of history, philosophy, evolutionary science and intrigue, with a bit of romance thrown into the mix.
No Impact Man – A couple years ago, New York–based author Colin Beavan and his family resolved to reduce their environmental footprint—to zero. In his wryly funny new memoir, he explains how they did it. (Hint No. 1: no toilet paper.)
The Year of the Flood – Global warming got you down? Cheer up! It could be much, much worse—at least if the brilliant Margaret Atwood’s latest dystopian yarn is any indication. Think humanity in peril, genetic mutants running amok and other treats.
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