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'Homer & Langley' by E.L. Doctorow

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Homer & Langley

A Novel

E.L. Doctorow

Random House: 208 pp., $26

E.L. Doctorow is the Lon Chaney of American fiction: man of a thousand faces, portrayer of a thousand lives. Since the publication of his first novel, "Welcome to Hard Times," in 1960, he has slipped in and out of an array of guises, imagining his way across the past, reinvigorating the interiority of our collective heritage.

At first, this had more to do with style than substance: "Welcome to Hard Times" is a western, and Doctorow's 1966 follow-up, "Big as Life," owes much to science fiction tropes. But beginning in 1971 with "The Book of Daniel" -- narrated by the son of a couple based on Julius and Ethel Rosenberg -- Doctorow found his true subject: the intersection of history and personality, the drama of America, its brilliant promise and its awful failings, in which private matters play out against a broader world.

Because of his approach, Doctorow has, at times, been misread as a sentimentalist; just look at the film made from his best-known novel, "Ragtime," the saga of a family, and a culture, unraveling in the face of a modernity they can't understand. Yet through it all, the author has maintained a startling consistency of vision, from the brutal romanticism of "Billy Bathgate" to the edgy existentialism of "City of God," the 2000 novel in which he concludes that even history cannot sustain us, that "[w]e are weak, and puny, and totter here in our civilization. . . . We have only our love for each other for our footing, our marriages, the children we hold in our arms, it is only this wavery sensation, flowing and ebbing, that justifies our consciousness and keeps us from plunging out of the universe. Not enough. It's not enough. We need a place to stand."

Doctorow's new novel, "Homer & Langley," is very much about these issues: the frailty of our yearnings and achievements, the need to find standing in the world. Based on the story of the Collyer brothers, two Manhattan recluses who died in 1947 in an upper Fifth Avenue brownstone stuffed to the gills with newspapers, artifacts and other detritus (even a Model T Ford), it is of a piece with works like "Ragtime" or "Billy Bathgate" in its fluid blending of fact and fiction, although here the lines are more difficult to parse. That's because "Homer & Langley" is a claustrophobic book, almost entirely inward-looking, not unlike the situation it evokes. Narrated by Homer -- "I'm Homer, the blind brother," the novel opens -- it has an oddly insubstantial quality, a distance brought on by the character's inability to see what he describes.

The real Homer Collyer was blind, although not until the last 14 years of his life. In Doctorow's telling, blindness comes earlier, a slow darkening that afflicts Homer in his teens, and which he observes with a characteristically detached air. "The houses over to Central Park West went first," he tells us, "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."

That's a risky way to begin a novel, with your narrator losing one of his key senses; fiction, after all, is a sensuous medium, relying not so much on what we know but on what we perceive. If nothing else, this sets up a series of creative challenges, compounded by the insularity of the narrative, the characters' retreat from the world. This is the sort of off-kilter undertaking Doctorow has routinely relished: In his 2005 novel "The March," he re-creates Sherman's devastation of Georgia and the Carolinas less as epic history than a flood of personal apocalypses, while "City of God" is constructed as a writer's notebook, full of fragments so elliptical it takes nearly 50 pages to decode.

What these books share, however, is a sense of moment, of the significance of their stories, the idea that they are situated somewhere between memory and myth. "Homer & Langley" never does achieve such stature. Like so much of Doctorow's writing, it is set against the sweep of history. After Langley is gassed in the trenches of World War I and comes home damaged in body and spirit, the brothers linger, like ghosts in an abandoned reliquary, through Prohibition, the Depression, the Cold War and on into the hippie days. These are long lives, and yet nothing really happens, no lasting attachments, nothing more than the relentless passage of the days.

To be fair, that's part of the point. "[T]o be a man in this world," Langley tells Homer, "is to face the hard real life of awful circumstance, to know there is only life and death and such varieties of human torment as to confound any such personage as God." What he's preaching is a peculiarly American self-reliance: "We don't need help from anyone. We will keep our own counsel. And defend ourselves. We've got to stand up to the world -- we're not free if it's at someone else's sufferance." But unlike that of, say, "Ragtime's" Coalhouse Walker or the young narrator of "Billy Bathgate," the Collyers' self-reliance doesn't take them anywhere.

Were Homer's voice a little less elusive, that might make for a vivid bit of commentary, the futility of the human condition writ large. Yet as it is, his words slip across the surface of the narrative like sheeting water, never finding the cracks that lead within. This is most glaring when it comes to the hoarding, which seems merely eccentric in "Homer & Langley," when in fact it was unimaginably extreme. More than 100 tons of trash was removed from the brothers' home after their deaths; photos show books and newspapers stacked to the ceilings, piles of garbage beneath a fallen chandelier. It took almost three weeks to find Langley's body even though he lay less than 10 feet from where his brother had died of starvation; he'd been bringing Homer food when he was crushed by a booby trap constructed to keep intruders at bay.

Here we have the true tragedy of the Collyers, and perhaps the most compelling irony, that it was not self-reliance but mutual dependence that did them in. Still, if Doctorow hints at this -- "There was a crash, the whole house shook," Homer comments late in the novel. "Where is Langley? Where is my brother?" -- he never quite breaks through the distance, not only between the siblings but also between Homer and himself. "There are moments," the blind brother reflects, after he has also lost his hearing, "when I cannot bear this unremitting consciousness. It knows only itself. The images of things are not the things in themselves. . . . My memories pale as I prevail upon them again and again. They become more and more ghostly. I fear nothing so much as losing them altogether and having only my blank endless mind to live in. If I could go crazy, if I could will that on myself, I might not know how badly off I am, how awful is this awareness that is irremediably aware of itself. With only the touch of my brother's hand to know that I am not alone."

That's terrific writing, but as Doctorow himself has acknowledged, terrific writing is not enough. "I'll make a crude distinction here," he notes in his 2006 essay collection "Creationists," "between those writers who make their language visible, who draw attention to it in the act of writing and don't let us forget it -- Melville, Joyce, Nabokov in our own time, the song-and dance men, the strutting dandies of literature -- from those magicians of the real who write to make their language invisible, like lit stage scrims that pass us through to the scene behind, so that we see the life they are rendering as if no language is producing it."

This, in the end, is the issue. Yes, "Homer & Langley" has its moments, but they are mostly abstract: Langley's self-styled "Theory of Replacements," in which human experience is seen as not unique or individual but endlessly cyclical, or his idea to produce "Collyer's eternally current dateless newspaper," where the stories would be archetypal, not specific, and so would never go out of date.

A newspaper that never exhausts itself? What a delightful fantasy. But like too much of "Homer & Langley," it fails to reflect the complex, messy exigencies of either history or life.

Ulin is book editor of The Times.

david.ulin@latimes.com

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