Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Review of Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow

Homer & Langley: A Novel
4 out of 5: E.L. Doctorow’s most recent novel, Homer & Langley, is an epic history of twentieth century America as it was experienced by two brothers living in a Fifth Avenue brownstone in New York City. Homer, the blind brother, narrates the story and describes how the brothers become ever more eccentric and reclusive over the decades. Their home becomes a repository for everything the brothers pick up on their wanderings through the city—including gangsters, hippies, and even a jazz trumpeter from New Orleans—and eventually becomes a destination for curiosity seekers and reporters.

Doctorow is a master at capturing the zeitgeist of a particular period in just a few sentences, like this view of the Prohibition era: “Some of the clubs were rather elegant, with a pretty good kitchen and a dance floor, others were basement dives where the music came from a radio on a wall shelf broadcasting some swing orchestra from Pittsburgh. But where you went didn't matter, you could die of the gin in any of these joints, and the mood was the same everywhere, people laughing at what wasn't funny.”

Such conciseness is necessary since, in just over 200 pages, Homer & Langley takes us through the twentieth century’s most transformative moments in America, including the transition of silent films to talkies to television, the development of jazz, the Great Depression, World War II, the Vietnam War and its opposition, and the Civil Rights Movement. Homer explains: “It was as if the times blew through our house like a wind, and these were the things deposited here by the winds of war.”

At times, Homer & Langley feels too much like a contrived stage for the organized parade of history (compare Forest Gump). Mostly, however, the compassion and sensitivity with which Doctorow presents the brothers, along with Homer’s unique voice, make this novel a joy to read.


bermudaonion said...

This story sounds so interesting to me, but I've read several negative reviews, so I just don't know what to think. I'm glad to see you liked this.

Erin Skelly Cameron said...

I definitely want to read this. I've had a fascination with the Collyer brothers - and hoarding in general - for years.

Although I am sad that E.L. doctorow beat me to it - I wanted to write this book.

Greg Zimmerman said...

I love Doctorow, but had seen some negative reviews of this novel. So glad to see that you liked it - I may move it up my TBR priority list now.

Very cool blog, too! I just discovered you and was delighted, 'cause it doesn't seem like there are too many book blogs dedicated to literary blogs. I'm following you now, and can't wait to read what you have to say!


Zibilee said...

I have also heard mixed things about this book, but the subject and the author still intrigue me, so I am still searching out good reviews. I am glad to have seen yours! I think I am going to add this one to my holiday wish list and see what I think. I am glad you liked it and I thought you did a wonderful job with this review.

Nick Dawson said...

Just downloaded the unabridged audiobook - love Doctorow's writing... not quite O'Hara but still captures the time well. Thanks for the review (step up the tweeting!)