I can’t be accused of being a hoarder. I gave away my children’s toys and donate clothes I no longer wear. One guest in my home asked “Where are the books?” My answer “I keep my books stored at the library.” I choose not to keep items, for which I might find a use, at some unknown future time. I recently read E. L. Doctorow’s Homer and Langley , based loosely on the Collyer brothers of New York City and their compulsive hoarding disorder. It affirmed my choice of lifestyle.
Compulsive hoarding isn’t a new phenomenon. Recently the problem has been highlighted by television talk and reality shows bringing therapists and/or professional organizers to the aid (in the interest of ratings) of compulsive hoarders. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, Homer and Langley Collyer were “media” stars. The New York Times Historical database has numerous articles about the brothers and their problems. Doctorow not only chronicles events but offers a sympathetic look into the minds and lives of those impaired. Homer, acting as narrator, begins the tale with his descent into blindness “I didn’t lose my sight all at once, it was like the movies, a slow fade out.” He relates his growing dependence on Langley; a World War I veteran, and a casualty, both physically and emotionally, of his battlefield experience.
Doctorow set his novel over a larger time span, World War I through the early 1970’s. The Collyers are observers and participants of the era. The brothers collect an assortment of people: gangsters, missionaries, hippies (who come and go); and items: Model T Fords, player pianos, television sets (that never leave); and thus relate the accounting of the years in likeness to the daily newspapers Langley amasses. These newspapers symbolize the repetition of events (as Langley espoused) and the similarity throughout time of the human condition.
This isn’t the first book based on the Collyer brothers. In 1954 Marcia Davenport wrote My Brother’s Keeper another fictional depiction and in 2003 Franz Lidz penned the non-fiction Ghosty Men: the Strange but True Story of the Collyer Brothers, New York's Greatest Hoarders: an Urban Historical.
Award winning author Doctorow’s other acclaimed novels include Ragtime, which won the first National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1976; World’s Fair , winner of the 1986 National Book Award; Billy Bathgate, 1990 winner of the PEN/Faulkner prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and The March, which received the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award, the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
One of my book discussion groups read Homer and Langley and it offered an excellent discussion. The library offers a book discussion kit.