07 May 2010


Hoarding has its own cable TV shows. (Buried Alive and Hoarders) It must be fascinating.

Hoarding has some fancy names attached to it: disposophobia and syllogomania. There's not a conclusive definition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But there are five levels of hoarding described in the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization (NSGCD).

Back in the 1930s and '40s, the Collyer brothers (Homer and Langley) gained fame as wealthy hermit horaders who "lived" in their Fifth Avenue brownstone in Manhattan. When the brothers were found dead in the house in '47, over 100 tons of stuff was removed from the house before it was torn down.

The Collyer Brothers' Fifth Avenue home on the day in 1947 when the police tunneled their way in and found Homer's body.

The New York Times wrote at the time the brothers were found that, "There is, admittedly, something unattractive about the avidity with which society now pores over every detail the Collyer brothers vigorously withheld from public scrutiny . . . . It is almost as though society were taking revenge upon the brothers for daring to cut the thread that binds man to his fellows." It seems that hoarding may be a form of OCD, but that fascination with hoarders is another form of OCD.

Books, a play, and episodes of television series have been based on the Collyer brothers. Most recently E. L. Doctorow's Homer and Langley. I picked this one up in the Northfield Library seeking to read something other than a mystery.

It seems that most of the time that I venture out to read "respectable" fiction, I come away disappointed and baffled by what good literature is.

A couple years ago, a friend recommended a Doctorow story, "Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden," which I thought was a pretty good parable. But I never went back and read the rest of the book.

Many years ago, I was intrigured by Ragtime and the movie version (and Elizabeth McGovern's nude scene). But I don't know now whether I remember Doctorow's book or Milos Forman's movie.

Like other Doctorow novels, Homer and Langley is a romanticized bit of fiction that uses the names and psychoses of two real people as a starting point, with a bit of the OCD fascination with hoarding thrown in.

The story sort of wades through 40-50 years of American history as "seen" by a blind guy sitting in a boarded up Fifth Avenue mansion while it (and the world?) falls apart around him. He's tended to by a brother who is more crazy than he is. The crazy old blind guy writes a memoir about all this on a Braille typewriter his brother has scavenged from somewhere.

The deterioration of everything happens so gradually, that the writer sort of accepts as normal the Model T reassembled in the dining room, the Japanese servants hauled off to a relocation camp, hauling water from Central Park when the city shuts off water service, the hippies who crash for a summer, the booby traps that his brother builds in the accumulated trash to deter burglars, and the rats who live (at first) in the walls and (later) around his feet.

I was curious about this book and looked up a couple reviews. The reviewers in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker all went on and on about how the book was packed with details and how the narrative forged ahead. None of them said it was a good book. None of them said it was a bad book. None of them said it was a mediocre book. All of them were intensely interested in talking about the real Collyer brothers and presenting photos of the trash-filled house. It's the fascination with hoarders again.

I don't know if it's a good or a bad or mediocre book. Im back with one of my favorite poets, Reed Whittemore. In his poem, "Today," he wrote
I come from Minnesota.
I must get a great big book with all the critics in it
And eat it. One gets so hungry and stupid in Minnesota.

I do know I didn't think much of Homer and Langley as a novel. It didn't entertain me. I was curious about these characters in the first half of the book and curious about what whould happen to them in the second half. My curiousity about what messages Doctorow was sending grew smaller and smaller until I skimmed through the last dozen pages. Doctorow seems to describe a lot of trivia and neglect most of the essentials of the brothers' lives.

If you want my advice, pass on this one. Go read some Reed Whittemore instead. Now that I've hauled Poems, new and selected (1967) off the shelf, that's what I think I'll do.

Have you read Homer and Langley? Have you read other Doctorow books? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

Michiko Kakutani's review in The New York Times

Michale Dirda's review in The Washington Post

The review in The New Yorker

1 comment:

Ken Wedding said...

Dan Conrad wrote, "With a writer as famous as Doctorow you hesitate to say whether its your fault or his, but I don't believe I've ever finished one of his books. I have the same record with Updike since Rabbit Run -- to say nothing of Norman Mailer. By what --and whose-- criteria are these America's great writers?"