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.