In a city known for its tolerance of eccentric behavior, brothers Homer Lusk Collyer (1881-1947) and Langley Collyer (1885-1947) surely rank among the Manhattan’s strangest inhabitants. When the men were found dead in their Fifth Avenue mansion in 1947, authorities had to wade through tons of debris that the brothers had collected, and the structure itself had to be demolished. These brothers represent the antithesis of what most would consider “normal” behavior. Granted, isolation is a singular characteristic of modern existence, especially urban life. However, few would flee human society altogether while simultaneously building a mountain of its detritus. Stranger still, it would seem, is E. L. Doctorow’s decision to write a novel about the Collyers, Homer & Langley.
Doctorow is in familiar territory when it comes to interweaving the lives of fictional characters with the larger drama of historical events. In The March (2005), he explored the deeper meaning of racism in the context of the Civil War through the life of an African American woman. Nor does his use of his native New York as a backdrop represent a departure from past practice. His novel Ragtime (1975) won great acclaim for its lively depiction of New York City life in the years just before World War I and achieved even greater renown when it was adapted as a film. Doctorow seems determined to write about the Collyer brothers in order to affirm the old truism that no man is an islandan ironic formulation, considering how often the brothers’ island-like isolation is challenged by the island of Manhattan.
While Doctorow’s characters remain persistently reclusive, his novel richly resonates with other literary texts. It is true that the real Homer Collyer was blind, but Doctorow plays upon the associations between the fictional life of the actual Homer Collyer and the equally blind poet Homer of ancient Greece, the founder of Western fiction. Like the bard of Greece, Homer Collyer is the sightless spinner of tales who nevertheless “sees” what others do not.
More subtle is the skill with which Doctorow reveals the influence of a more recent writer, the English novelist Joseph Conrad. In Conrad’s The Secret Sharer (1910), the unnamed narrator begins the story by describing a tropic twilight’s progress into night as he stands upon the deck of his ship. The progression into darkness is poetically rendered and almost cinematic in scope. In a similar manner, Doctorow begins his novel by having Homer describe another descent into darknessnot into the transient night of Conrad’s captain but rather the permanent void of Homer’s blindness. 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 finallyall I could see were these phantom shapes of the ice skaters floating past me on a field of ice . . .
Eventually, Homer’s slide into the world of blackness is complete, and nothing remains of the skaters but the sound of their skates, the “scoot scut” of blades on ice. Doctorow has sometimes been criticized for creating entertaining stories that are somewhat lacking in depth. The same cannot said of Homer & Langley. Doctorow’s description of Homer’s creeping blindness effectively captures his sense of isolation and defines his character in memorable imagery.
The association with Conrad’s work is important, for it goes beyond a mere surface resemblance between the opening passages in the two novels. At the core of The Secret Sharer is a penetrating psychological exploration of the relationship between the captain narrator and the escaped murderer he assistsa relationship so intense that the narrator risks his vessel in his zeal to aid the man he links with his own identity. The psychological propinquity between Homer and Langley cannot be said to be nearly as close as that of Conrad’s characters. The former is the consummate artist of the book. He “creates” the tale, invokes his muse Jacqueline Roux in the crafting of it, and clearly reflects an active imaginative inner life in his use of memory. Langley, however, seems at times to have more in common with...
(The entire section is 1754 words.)