Hoarder Brothers in NYC — “Homer & Langley” by E.L. Doctorow
Did you know – Before the world fell in love/fascination with Big and Little Edie Beale and their ramshackle mansion in the Hamptons, the world was riveted by the Collyer brothers?
True Story –
Homer and Langley Collyer were notorious in New York City in the 30s and 40s for their hoarding. These two recluses rarely left their home, which over time had become packed to the rafters with items – largely newspapers collected by Langley. Telephone, water, and gas services had been cut off to them after their refusal to pay bills, but this had no effect and they kept on with their lives. The brothers lived in squalor for years.
On March 21, 1947, alerted by neighbors of a stench, police broke into a window and found Homer Collyer’s body. He’d only been dead ten hours. Langley was nowhere to be found, and a search of the house began. On April 8, 1947, Langley’s dead body was finally located. There was so much junk in the house, Langley’s body had been only ten feet away from Homer’s, and squadrons of police and investigators hadn’t been able to find it. In the wake of their deaths, 130 tons of junk were removed from their home.
E.L. Doctorow’s 2009 novel, “Homer and Langley” attempts to tell a fictionalized version of the story of the Collyer brothers. While it’s openly historical fiction (things are embellished and some events totally fabricated) it’s a thoughtful and fascinating story of what would drive two young mean of moderate fortune into a life of hermitage and hoarding.
Doctorow, always wonderful with detail and story, shines with this book. Homer (the blind, nicer brother) narrates the action. Rather, he sits at a typewriter and plucks out the entire life story that he and brother have shared up to the present moment. He’s writing it to a “Jacqueline,” though it’s not clear until the last pages of the book if this “Jacqueline” is a real or made-up person. Writing through Homer was the smartest possible way to get inside the world these men lived in. Though Langley clearly suffers from a mental illness, he’s written of with kindness. Langley’s projects and attempts to cure his brothers blindness are endearing, even as you recognize them as the actions of a person who needs some professional help. Things seem to be, if not a natural series of events, at least a rationalized series of events. Run ins with gangsters, hippies, and a brief stint where the brothers turn their home into a dance hall are all just things that happen. We learn of the women that these men loved, even for the briefest of moments, and it’s those small details that make these brothers complete and well-rounded characters, instead of just one-note crazy people, which could have been an easy mistake. As the years pass and their last ties to the real world disappear, you see the progress of the changing of the world these men lived in, and how they could never go back to being “normal.”
(In particular, the way Doctorow chooses to end the book is truly staggering, especially if you know the real-life ending of the story.)
“Homer and Langley” is a remarkable novel by a remarkable writer.