Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Authors
Books
Features
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

  • Homer & Langley
  • Written by E.L. Doctorow
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780812975635
  • Our Price: $15.00
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Homer & Langley

Buy now from Random House

  • Homer & Langley
  • Written by E.L. Doctorow
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9781588368973
  • Our Price: $11.99
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Homer & Langley

Buy now from Random House

  • Homer & Langley
  • Written by E.L. Doctorow
    Read by Arthur Morey
  • Format: Unabridged Compact Disc | ISBN: 9780739334164
  • Our Price: $32.00
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Homer & Langley

Buy now from Random House

  • Homer & Langley
  • Written by E.L. Doctorow
    Read by Arthur Morey
  • Format: Unabridged Audiobook Download | ISBN: 9780739334171
  • Our Price: $15.00
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Homer & Langley

Homer & Langley

    Select a Format:
  • Book
  • eBook
  • Audiobook

A Novel

Written by E.L. DoctorowAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by E.L. Doctorow



eBook

List Price: $11.99

eBook

On Sale: September 01, 2009
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-897-3
Published by : Random House Random House Group

Audio Editions

$32.00

Published by: Random House Audio

Read by Arthur Morey
On Sale: September 01, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-7393-3416-4
More Info...

Read by Arthur Morey
On Sale: September 01, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-7393-3417-1
More Info...
Listen to an excerpt
Visit RANDOM HOUSE AUDIO to learn more about audiobooks.


Homer & Langley Cover

Bookmark,
Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - Homer & Langley
  • Email this page - Homer & Langley
  • Print this page - Homer & Langley
ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PRAISE PRAISE
READER'S GUIDE READER'S GUIDE
RELATED VIDEOS RELATED VIDEOS
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

I’m Homer, the blind brother, I didn't lose my sight all at once, it was like the movies, a slow fade-out. When I was told what was happening I was interested to measure it, I was in my late teens then, keen on everything. What I did this particular winter was to stand back from the lake in Central Park where they did all their ice skating and see what I could see and couldn’t see as a day-by-day thing. The houses over to Central Park West went first, they got darker as if dissolving into the dark sky until I couldn’t make them out, and then the trees began to lose their shape, and then finally, this was toward the end of the season, maybe it was late February of that very cold winter, and all I could see were these phantom shapes of the ice skaters floating past me on a field of ice, and then the white ice, that last light, went gray and then altogether black, and then all my sight was gone though I could hear clearly the scoot scut of the blades on the ice, a very satisfying sound, a soft sound though full of intention, a deeper tone than you’d expect made by the skate blades, perhaps for having sounded the resonant basso of the water under the ice, scoot scut, scoot scut. I would hear someone going someplace fast, and then the twirl into that long scurratch as the skater spun to a stop, and then I laughed too for the joy of that ability of the skater to come to a dead stop all at once, going along scoot scut and then scurratch.

Of course I was sad too, but it was lucky this happened to me when I was so young with no idea of being disabled, moving on in my mind to my other capacities like my exceptional hearing, which I trained to a degree of alertness that was almost visual. Langley said I had ears like a bat and he tested that proposition, as he liked to subject everything to review. I was of course familiar with our house, all four storeys of it, and could navigate every room and up and down the stairs without hesitation, knowing where everything was by memory. I knew the drawing room, our father’s study, our mother’s sitting room, the dining room with its eighteen chairs and the walnut long table, the butler’s pantry and the kitchens, the parlor, the bedrooms, I remembered how many of the carpeted steps there were between the floors, I didn’t even have to hold on to the railing, you could watch me and if you didn’t know me you wouldn’t know my eyes were dead. But Langley said the true test of my hearing capacity would come when no memory was involved, so he shifted things around a bit, taking me into the music room, where he had earlier rolled the grand piano around to a different corner and had put the Japanese folding screen with the herons in water in the middle of the room, and for good measure twirled me around in the doorway till my entire sense of direction was obliterated, and I had to laugh because don’t you know I walked right around that folding screen and sat down at the piano exactly as if I knew where he had put it, as I did, I could hear surfaces, and I said to Langley, A blind bat whistles, that’s the way he does it, but I didn’t have to whistle, did I? He was truly amazed, Langley is the older of us by two years, and I have always liked to impress him in whatever way I could. At this time he was already a college student in his first year at Columbia. How do you do it? he said. This is of scientific interest. I said: I feel shapes as they push the air away, or I feel heat from things, you can turn me around till I’m dizzy, but I can still tell where the air is filled in with something solid.

And there were other compensations as well. I had tutors for my education and then, of course, I was comfortably enrolled in the West End Conservatory of Music, where I had been a student since my sighted years. My skill as a pianist rendered my blindness acceptable in the social world. As I grew older, people spoke of my gallantry, and the girls certainly liked me. In our New York society of those days, one parental means of ensuring a daughter’s marriage to a suitable husband was to warn her, from birth it seemed, to watch out for men and to not quite trust them. This was well before the Great War, when the days of the flapper and women smoking cigarettes and drinking martinis were in the unimaginable future. So a handsome young blind man of reputable family was particularly attractive insofar as he could not, even in secret, do anything untoward. His helplessness was very alluring to a woman trained since birth, herself, to be helpless. It made her feel strong, in command, it could bring out her sense of pity, it could do lots of things, my sightlessness. She could express herself, give herself to her pent-up feelings, as she could not safely do with a normal fellow. I dressed very well, I could shave myself with my straight razor and never nick the skin, and at my instructions the barber kept my hair a bit longer than it was being worn in that day, so that when at some gathering I sat at the piano and played the Appassionata, for instance, or the Revolutionary Étude, my hair would fly about—I had a lot of it then, a good thick mop of brown hair parted in the middle and coming down each side of my head. Franz Lisztian hair is what it was. And if we were sitting on a sofa and no one was about, a young lady friend might kiss me, touch my face and kiss me, and I, being blind, could put my hand on her thigh without seeming to have that intention, and so she might gasp, but would leave it there for fear of embarrassing me.

I should say that as a man who never married I have been particularly sensitive to women, very appreciative in fact, and let me admit right off that I had a sexual experience or two in this time I am describing, this time of my blind city life as a handsome young fellow not yet twenty, when our parents were still alive and had many soirees, and entertained the very best people of the city in our home, a monumental tribute to late Victorian design that would be bypassed by modernity—as for instance the interior fashions of our family friend Elsie de Wolfe, who, after my father wouldn’t allow her to revamp the entire place, never again set foot in our manse—and which I always found comfortable, solid, dependable, with its big upholstered pieces, or tufted Empire side chairs, or heavy drapes over the curtains on the ceiling-to-floor windows, or medieval tapestries hung from gilt poles, and bow-windowed bookcases, thick Persian rugs, and standing lamps with tasseled shades and matching chinois amphora that you could almost step into…it was all very eclectic, being a record of sorts of our parents’ travels, and cluttered it might have seemed to outsiders, but it seemed normal and right to us and it was our legacy, Langley’s and mine, this sense of living with things assertively inanimate, and having to walk around them.

Our parents went abroad for a month every year, sailing away on one ocean liner or another, waving from the railing of some great three- or four-stacker—the Carmania, the Mauretania, the Neuresthania—as she pulled away from the dock. They looked so small up there, as small as I felt with my hand in the tight hand of my nurse, and the ship’s horn sounding in my feet and the gulls flying about as if in celebration, as if something really fine was going on. I used to wonder what would happen to my father’s patients while he was away, for he was a prominent women’s doctor and I worried that they would get sick and maybe die, waiting for him to return.

Even as my parents were running around England, or Italy, or Greece or Egypt, or wherever they were, their return was presaged by things in crates delivered to the back door by the Railway Express Company: ancient Islamic tiles, or rare books, or a marble water fountain, or busts of Romans with no noses or missing ears, or antique armoires with their fecal smell.

And then, finally, with great huzzahs, there, after I’d almost forgotten all about them, would be Mother and Father themselves stepping out of the cab in front of our house, and carrying in their arms such treasures as hadn’t preceded them. They were not entirely thoughtless parents for there were always presents for Langley and me, things to really excite a boy, like an antique toy train that was too delicate to play with, or a gold-plated hairbrush.

we did some traveling as well, my brother and I, being habitual summer campers in our youth. Our camp was in Maine on a coastal plateau of woods and fields, a good place to appreciate Nature. The more our country lay under blankets of factory smoke, the more the coal came rattling up from the mines, the more our massive locomotives thundered through the night and big harvesting machines sliced their way through the crops and black cars filled the streets, blowing their horns and crashing into one another, the more the American people worshipped Nature. Most often this devotion was relegated to the children. So there we were living in primitive cabins in Maine, boys and girls in adjoining camps.

I was in the fullness of my senses, then. My legs were limber and my arms strong and sinewy and I could see the world with all the unconscious happiness of a fourteen-year-old. Not far from the camps, on a bluff overlooking the ocean, was a meadow profuse with wild blackberry bushes, and one afternoon numbers of us were there plucking the ripe blackberries and biting into their wet warm pericarped pulp, competing with flights of bumblebees, as we raced them from one bush to another and stuffed the berries into our mouths till the juice dripped down our chins. The air was thickened with floating communities of gnats that rose and fell, expanding and contracting, like astronomical events. And the sun shone on our heads, and behind us at the foot of the cliff were the black and silver rocks patiently taking and breaking apart the waves and, beyond that, the glittering sea radiant with shards of sun, and all of it in my clear eyes as I turned in triumph to this one girl with whom I had bonded, Eleanor was her name, and stretched my arms wide and bowed as the magician who had made it for her. And somehow when the others moved on we lingered conspiratorially behind a thicket of blackberry bushes until the sound of them was gone and we were there unattended, having broken camp rules, and so self-defined as more grown-up than anyone believed, though we grew reflective walking back, holding hands without even realizing it.

Is there any love purer than this, when you don’t even know what it is? She had a moist warm hand, and dark eyes and hair, this Eleanor. Neither of us was embarrassed by the fact that she was a good head taller than me. I remember her lisp, the way her tongue tip was caught between her teeth when she pronounced her S’s. She was not one of the socially self-assured ones who abounded in the girls’ side of the camp. She wore the uniform green shirt and gray bloomers they all wore but she was something of a loner, and in my eyes she seemed distinguished, fetching, thoughtful, and in some state of longing analogous to my own—for what, neither of us could have said. This was my first declared affection and so serious that even Langley, who lived in another cabin with his age group, did not tease me. I wove a lanyard for Eleanor and cut and stitched a model birch bark canoe for her.

Oh, but this is a sad tale I have wandered into. The boys’ and girls’ camps were separated by a stand of woods through the length of which was a tall wire fence of the kind to keep animals out and so it was a major escapade at night for the older boys to climb over or dig under this fence and challenge authority by running through the girls’ camp shouting and dodging pursuing counselors, and banging on cabin doors so as to elicit delighted shrieks. But Eleanor and I breached the fence to meet after everyone was asleep and to wander about under the stars and talk philosophically about life. And that’s how it happened that on one warm August night we found ourselves down the road a mile or so at a lodge dedicated like our camp to getting back to nature. But it was for adults, for parents. Attracted by a flickering light in the otherwise dark manse we tiptoed up on the porch and through the window saw a shocking thing, what in later time would be called a blue movie. Its licentious demonstration was taking place on a portable screen something like a large window shade. In the reflected light we could see in silhouette an audience of attentive adults leaning forward in their chairs and sofas. I remember the sound of the projector not that far from the open window, the whirring sound it made, like a field of cicadas. The woman on the screen, naked but for a pair of high-heeled shoes, lay on her back on a table and the man, also naked, stood holding her legs under the knees so that she was proffered to receive his organ, of which he made sure first to exhibit its enormity to his audience. He was an ugly bald skinny man with just that one disproportionate feature to distinguish him. As he shoved himself again and again into the woman she was given to pulling her hair while her legs kicked up convulsively, each shoe tip jabbing the air in rapid succession, as if she’d been jolted with an electric current. I was rapt—horrified, but also thrilled to a level of unnatural feeling that was akin to nausea. I do not wonder now that with the invention of moving pictures, their pornographic possibilities were immediately understood.

Did my friend gasp, did she tug at my hand to pull me away? If she did I would not have noticed. But when I was sufficiently recovered in my senses I turned and she was nowhere to be seen. I ran back the way we had come, and on this moonlit night, a night as black and white as the film, I could see no one on the road ahead of me. The summer had some weeks to go but my friend Eleanor never spoke to me again, or even looked my way, a decision I accepted as an accomplice, by gender, of the male performer. She was right to run from me, for on that night romance was unseated in my mind and in its place was enthroned the idea that sex was something you did to them, to all of them including poor shy tall Eleanor. It is a puerile illusion, hardly worthy of a fourteen-year-old mind, yet it persists among grown men even as they meet women more avidly copulative than they.


From the Hardcover edition.
E.L. Doctorow

About E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow - Homer & Langley

Photo © Phillip Friedman

E. L. Doctorow’s works of fiction include Homer & Langley, The March, Billy Bathgate, Ragtime, The Book of Daniel, City of God, Welcome to Hard Times, Loon Lake, World’s Fair, The Waterworks, and All the Time in the World. Among his honors are the National Book Award, three National Book Critics Circle awards, two PEN/Faulkner awards, the Edith Wharton Citation for Fiction, and the presidentially conferred National Humanities Medal. In 2009 he was short-listed for the Man Booker International Prize honoring a writer’s lifetime achievement in fiction, and in 2012 he won the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, given to an author whose “scale of achievement over a sustained career [places] him . . . in the highest rank of American literature.” In 2013 the American Academy of Arts and Letters awarded him the Gold Medal for Fiction.
Praise

Praise

“Cunningly panoramic…Doctorow has packed this tale with episodes of existential wonder that cpature the brothers in all their fascinating wackiness.” —Elle

“Doctorow paints on a sweeping historical canvas, imagining the Collyer brothers as witness to the aspirations and transgressions of 20th century America; yet this book’s most powerfully moving moments are the quiet ones, when the brothers relish a breath of cool morning air, and each other’s tragically exclusive company.” — O Magazine

“Doctorow works his usual magic in bringing history to life and larding it with disturbing implications…As with much of Doctorow’s masterful fiction, Homer & Langley turns the American dream on its ear, offering us a glimpse of the dark side of our national–and personal–eccentricities.” — BookPage

“Following the panoramic scope of The March, Doctorow creates a microcosmic and mythic tale of compulsion, alienation, and dark metamorphosis inspired by the famously eccentric Collyer brothers of New York City… Doctorow has Homer, who is blind, narrate with deadpan humor and spellbinding precision…Over the decades, people come and go–lovers, a gangster, a jazz musician, a flock of hippies, but finally Homer and Langley are irrevocably alone, prisoners in their fortress of rubbish, trapped in their warped form of brotherly love. Wizardly Doctorow presents an ingenious, haunting odyssey that unfolds within a labyrinth built out of the detritus of war and excess.”
«–Booklist starred review «

“A sweeping masterpiece about the infamous New York hermits, the Collyer brothers…. 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.”
«–Publishers Weekly starred review «



From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

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. 
 
 

Related Videos

On the Web


E.L. Doctorow talks with the New York Times Book Review about how the infamous Collyer brothers inspired "Homer & Langley."

  • Homer & Langley by E. L. Doctorow
  • September 07, 2010
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • $15.00
  • 9780812975635

Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: