Thursday, March 28, 2013

Homer & Langley (by E.L. Doctorow)

We chose this book for our book group, and being a huge fan of Ragtime, and interested in the Collyer brothers story, I was excited to read it!

It's an incredibly fast read (200 pages, it took me no more than a couple of hours) and a fascinating story. The Collyer brothers were basically the male versions of Big and Little Edie, eccentric real-life mega-hoarders who were ultimately killed in a way I won't spoil, but it seems fairly accurate in the book. The accuracy in the way the deaths were handled is slightly surprising because the book takes a lot of liberties with most other real-life facts, moving the action forward in time by a couple of decades, switching the birth order around, and having the brothers encounter various characters representing historical time periods--Japanese citizens placed in internment camps, nuns killed in El Salvador, and pot-smoking free-love hippies, to name a few.

The book group discussion nailed the problems with this pretty well: it often feels contrived and Forrest Gump-esque, and it's also unnecessary when the real-life story is so fascinating. (Two other books about the brothers, Ghosty Men and My Brother's Keeper, stay closer to the actual history.) I feel like what Doctorow manages to pull off in Ragtime (a real cross-section of Americana) is what he was going for with the history here, but the reader can really see the strings this time, and I would have rather spent more time on the internal lives of the brothers.

I did really enjoy the characters, and found them sympathetic and believable. Loved Homer as an unreliable narrator. Loved Langley's project of collecting and cataloguing newspapers in his attempt to make a newspaper that would be accurate no matter when a person read it. Loved the haunting ending. But I also see the validity in the critiques above.

So I guess my review is mixed, but overall I'd give it a thumbs up. I guess the thing I liked the most about it is its mood: the story of eccentricity gone to the extreme reminded me of Grey Gardens, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Remainder, and Martin Dressler all at once.  Possibly those four (one movie, three books) are all superior works though.

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