The Collyer brothers of Harlem serve as a horrific cautionary tale for anybody who keeps old junk around. Sent by a tip to the pair’s Fifth Avenue row house in the late 1940s, startled police officers had to fight their way through an appalling maze of garbage, boxes, papers, books, furniture, pianos, part of a Model T Ford and towers of miscellaneous debris — 100 tons of stuff — before they uncovered the body of Homer, the elder brother, who had starved to death. Weeks later, after a fruitless manhunt, they found another corpse. Langley had been crushed by a booby trap and partially eaten by rats.
The Collyers not only provide an informative lesson for the slobby and careless but also the rather slim framework for E.L. Doctorow’s latest novel, which lacks the grander scope of some of his earlier work but still resonates with haunting eloquence. Doctorow uses the reclusive brothers as a conduit through the decades, and while the book is too slight to provide much perspective into U.S. history, it’s still an intriguing character study and an elegantly written exploration of isolation.
Doctorow — whose Civil War novel “The March” won the National Book Critics Circle and PEN/Faulkner awards and was a Pulitzer finalist in 2005 — has examined New York City’s past before. In such novels as “Ragtime,” “World’s Fair,” “Billy Bathgate” and “The Waterworks,” he deftly used historical characters to illuminate the time and place. Here he takes some liberties with the facts: Doctorow’s Homer loses his sight as a young man instead of later in life, although, as he tells us, “I am only blind of eye,” a detail that frees him to act as a semi-reliable narrator of decline.
How do scions of an old Manhattan family — one an accomplished pianist, the other a Columbia student — become filthy hermits who live without running water or electricity? In Doctorow’s model, the effects of war, changing times and physical handicaps all have roles in the Collyers’ overwhelming decrepitude. First, Homer loses his sight. Then Langley ships off to fight in World War I, and, in his absence, their parents fall victim to the 1918 flu epidemic. Langley, gassed in France, returns home altered and, his brother tells us, becomes more obsessed with his bizarre “Theory of Replacements, which he had by now developed into a metaphysical sort of idea of the repetition or recurrence of life events, the same things happening over and over, especially given the proscribed limits of human intelligence, ‘Homo sapiens’ being a specie that, in his words, just didn’t have enough.”
Langley buys every newspaper every day and obsesses about “counting and filing news stories according to category: invasions, wars, mass murders, auto, train, and plane wrecks, love scandals, church scandals, robberies, murders, lynchings, rapes, political misdoings with a subhead of crooked elections, police misdeeds, gangland rubouts, investment scams, strikes, tenement fires, trials civil, trials criminal, and so on. There was a separate category for natural disasters .æ.æ. He wanted to fix American life finally in one edition, what he called Collyer’s eternally current dateless newspaper, the only newspaper anyone would ever need.”
The real Langley was only slightly less ambitious: He kept thousands of papers because he believed that Homer would want to read them after an all-orange diet restored his sight (the oranges eventually show up in the novel, too). Either project could drive a man mad, and sure enough, in Doctorow’s version, time passes swiftly, and the Collyers slide deeper into their own world, Prohibition slipping into World War II and beyond to Korea, then on to the assassinations of the 1960s and Vietnam. In some ways the novel validates Langley’s crackpot theory: Some things (death, strife) are constant, and human nature, well, it doesn’t change much from decade to decade. See? We don’t even need the newspaper; the concept fits nicely on a tweet.
Still, Doctorow is compassionate toward his flawed brothers, who once held such promise, loved women and music and dancing, but are now remembered as freaks and misanthropes and hoarders. “What could be more terrible than being turned into a mythic joke?” Homer wonders anxiously toward the novel’s end. Doctorow’s great success here is in reaching past the joke to make us feel his anguish.