Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Collyer Brothers

E.L. Doctorow has a new book out about the Collyer Brothers.
I thought Crazy Rhythm might fit?
Crazy rhythm, here's the doorway
I'll go my way, you'll go your way
Crazy rhythm, from now on
We're through.
Here is where we have a showdown
I'm too high-hat, you're too low-down
Crazy rhythm, here's goodbye to you!
They say that when a high-brow meets a low-brow
Walkin' along Broadway
Soon the high-brow
He has no brow
Ain't it a shame?
And you're to blame
What's the use of prohibition?
You produce the same condition
Crazy rhythm, from now on, we're through
Crazy rhythm, I've gone crazy

An excerpt from the Times' review. Kakutani didn't care for it
The last name of the title characters of E. L. Doctorow’s new novel, “Homer & Langley,” is Collyer, and the book’s brothers do, in fact, turn out to be versions of those infamous New York pack rats, whose overstuffed Harlem brownstone — crammed floor to ceiling with towering piles of newspapers, suitcases and boxes, as well as 14 pianos, half a dozen toy train sets, chandeliers, a car chassis and more than 100 tons of garbage — made their name synonymous with obsessive-compulsive collecting.
The corpses of the two men would be found in their Fifth Avenue home by police in 1947: one buried under an avalanche of rat-infested trash; the other, dead of starvation and assorted ailments.
How did the well-to-do scions of one of New York’s oldest families come to such a sad and ludicrous end? The story is a kind of male, New York City version of “Grey Gardens,” and it has fascinated writers for years. It reportedly inspired Marcia Davenport’s 1954 novel, “My Brother’s Keeper,” and Richard Greenberg’s 2002 play, “The Dazzle,” and now Mr. Doctorow, using his patented blend of fact and fiction, has tackled it here, producing a slight, unsatisfying, Poe-like story that turns out to be a study in morbid psychology.
Mr. Doctorow (the E. stands for Edgar) has said he was named for Poe, and he’s ventured into his namesake’s Gothic territory before with his 1994 novel “The Waterworks,” a story about science and detection and families. That novel, like the author’s best-known works, “Ragtime,” “World’s Fair” and “Billy Bathgate,” showcased the author’s magical ability to conjure a vanished New York from the dust and smoke of history.
Clearly Mr. Doctorow wants to do something similar here, going so far as to extend his heroes’ lives through the Watergate era, but the reader unfortunately gets little visceral sense of the city or the country in these pages. After all, Homer and Langley spent much of their lives as recluses and came to inhabit a suffocating realm bounded by the walls of their town house. As a result, there are few excursions into the New York City Mr. Doctorow knows so well, and lots of time — far more than the reader might wish — spent inside the Collyer brothers’ musty, dusty, junk-filled home.
In Mr. Doctorow’s fictionalized telling of the Collyers’ story, Langley suffered from a mustard gas attack during World War I and returned home, damaged and possibly mad. His brother, Homer, who narrates the story, went blind as a teenager but became a skilled pianist and enjoyed the attention of lots of women, who apparently found his helplessness alluring.
As recounted in these pages, the Collyers’ parents died during the great flu epidemic of 1918, and after Langley’s return from the war, the brothers set up housekeeping together. For a while the pair maintained an engagement with the world. Homer has an affair with a house servant; Langley has a short-lived marriage to a tempestuous woman. Both of them develop unconsummated crushes on the beautiful and virginal Mary Elizabeth Riordan, who works as Homer’s assistant. There are visits to speakeasies and nightclubs, and encounters with a gangster who may remind readers of Dutch Schultz in “Billy Bathgate.”
Langley becomes increasingly eccentric, however, holding forth tediously on his Theory of Replacements, a cynical hypothesis that holds that “everything in life gets replaced”: that children are replacements of their parents, and that new generations of geniuses, baseball players and kings are replacements of earlier generations of geniuses, baseball players and kings. Langley sets about collecting and saving newspapers so he can create Collyer’s One Edition for All Time, a quixotic, all-purpose newspaper that will sum up all the varieties of human experience in one set of stories.

No comments: