Two well-to-do brothers from a distinguished New York family became recluses in the first half of the 20th century. E. L. Doctorow based his semi-fictional story on an odd couple named Collyer who chose an existence which was the antithesis of what they might have had. It is definitely a true story, doctored up a bit by Mr. Doctorow, but factual in its essence.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Brownstone Houses, New York City
The narrator of Doctorow's tale is Homer, the blind brother. Homer was not born blind, but gradually became blind during his adolescent years. He was completely dependent on his brother Langley in their 5th Avenue brownstone overlooking Central Park. Langley, however, was blind in his own way. Having been exposed to mustard gas during World War I, he became mentally unbalanced and limited his existence to the care and feeding of his brother Homer.
But that isn't all. Langley was a scavenger and packrat who collected items which he considered necessary - old toasters, phonographs, dishes, broken umbrellas, pieces of lumber, tires, a baby carriage, stacks of roof shingles, and a Model T Ford which he installed in the living room. In addition, Langley kept each daily newspaper that was delivered so that the hallways were gutted and hampered passage. Fortunately, Homer in his blindness was able to navigate the mansion even as walking space became more and more limited.
Homer was a pianist, which gave him something to occupy his time. Langley's main pursuit was an idea for the future publication of a dateless newspaper which would include in one issue every possible event that could ever happen, making the newspaper business obsolete. He scoured thoroughly each paper that was delivered and categorized each event, which filled his days with purpose.
Groups of people did come to their door - creditors, policemen, utility workers, hippies, a gangster, prostitutes and others. Some stayed a while. The hippies lived with them for weeks. The gangster made it his hideaway for a short time.
It is hard to believe that people could live this way. E. L. Doctorow tells the story with humor and takes us through several decades of history in the bargain. Prohibition, the depression, the events of World War II, all serve as a backdrop for relating the day-to-day activity of the recluses.
Sadly, Homer loses his hearing also. His only contact with the world is then the touch of his brother's hand on him - until one day when his brother is nowhere in evidence. Police authorities found Homer dead from starvation. Langley was missing for two weeks until he was found in the house under a pile of rubble which fell on him. It was reported that one hundred tons of debris had to be removed from the Collyer residence, none of which was worth salvaging.
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E. L. Doctorow has a knack for telling an otherwise pitifully sad story in an upbeat manner, which keeps the reader captivated. I recommend this book as high entertainment.
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