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Doctorow works his magic in tale of blue bloods who died in squalor

bigcap,5 IIn the 62 years since crowds gathered to marvel at the massive piles of debris pulled from the once-grand Harlem brownstone of reclusive bachelor brothers Homer and Langley Collyer -- ranging from floor-to-ceiling stacks of newspapers to the chassis of a Model T -- the disorder that ultimately killed them has become better understood.

Now, hoarding -- the frenzied accumulation of worthless possessions that can result in a house packed floor to ceiling with newspapers, food, trash, clothing and books -- is understood to be a particular subset of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The disorder is illustrated in the voyeuristic A&E show, "Hoarders," and when children or animals are removed from the squalor of hoarders' houses, it's duly reported but hardly stunning. For hoarders whose accumulations spark neighborhood outrage, such as East Aurora's Richard "Tiny" Gleed, by all accounts a fine man with a psychiatric problem whose accumulations of debris had been a public issue since the 1970s, the public battle can be protracted and humiliating. But the sensation experienced by the crowds that gathered as the junk was pitched from the doors and windows of the Collyer brothers' house was, and remains, unprecedented.

Perhaps we are fascinated with the hoarders because everyone has such impulses, even if slight. Who hasn't looked at a cluttered desk or an out-of-control closet and felt frustrated by the lack of time or energy needed to sort and toss?

Growing up in Albany, with multiple New York City papers read daily in my home and a world view shaped by my grandparents, my early cultural touchstones were such legends as Judge Crater, Legs Diamond and, yes, the Collyer brothers. And this is the legend and lesson I understood: Two wealthy hermits, one an invalid, packed their house with junk. A pile of it finally fell on the well brother, killing him. Just feet away, his handicapped brother starved, a victim of the trash and their isolation.

The public was fascinated by the inherent conflicts in the story -- rich, blue-blooded sons of privilege eking out a filthy, miserly existence, obscuring and ultimately destroying valuable antiques with worthless junk.

E.L. Doctorow, born in New York in 1931, was 16 years old when the Collyer brothers were found dead: Homer first, after police, stymied by walls of junk in all the doorways, climbed in a second-floor window and found him hunched in a chair, newly dead of hunger and thirst. But where was Langley? The city, the region and then the nation searched for the man who had abandoned his brother to starve.

Langley spottings were rumored, unkempt men with flowing hair chased down and questioned. Eighteen days later, crews found Langley dead just 10 feet from Homer, crushed by one of the boobytraps he had built throughout the rat warren. Those 10 feet that separated the bodies were a solid wall of debris.

Having found the brothers, authorities began emptying the house. Some 100 tons of garbage, machinery, bicycles, toys, furniture and eccentric collections, ranging from the jars of preserved human organs (an inheritance from their doctor father) to 14 pianos, were thrown into the street before gawking crowds. Their rotted-out mansion was demolished, replaced by a park. Neighbors objected to even having the park named after the brothers who had lived and died at that address.

In interviews about this masterful, subtle and thoroughly absorbing novel, Doctorow says that he had thought about the Collyers for some time and realized that he needed to get inside, not only the house, but the minds of the brothers. He succeeded when the first sentence of the book appeared in his mind.

The sentence is: "I'm Homer, the blind brother."

And with that, the reader is plunged into the life and worldview of a gentle, emotional, perceptive man whose family name would live on only in the threats to untidy children that their rooms were beginning to resemble "the Collyer brothers'."

As Homer narrates the increasingly odd life he shares with his brother, almost every step Langley takes seems reasonable, if not quite logical. We sense darker workings beyond the scope of Homer's knowledge when he remarks on Langley's battles with the city and utility companies, and what seems to be Langley's partially justified growing paranoia.

In their youth, the brothers function adequately, if not comfortably, in the world. Despite Langley's World War I injuries and Homer's blindness, both men -- Columbia grads with a pedigree and a fortune, if few social skills -- become involved with women. Through the years, others come and go in the brothers' lives and home. They range from servants and caretakers -- a Japanese couple are taken away by the FBI during World War II -- to gangsters, prostitutes and people who attend the brothers' "tea dances."

Most improbably in Doctorow's fiction, the home becomes a haven to hippies in the 1960s and 1970s, and in Doctorow's world, the brothers -- who died in 1947 -- live on to react to the murder of four American nuns in 1980.

As the house becomes more packed with debris and Homer's ailments begin to close off his senses, he asks, plaintively, "For what could be more terrible than being turned into a mythic joke?"

In the six decades years since their deaths, if they were remembered at all, Homer and Langley Collyer were remembered as exactly that, a mythic joke, a bizarre conundrum, two paranoid old men whose hoarding ultimately killed them both.

But in this fascinating fictional portrait of these two iconic lives, we navigate the strangeness, the pathology and the clutter and find Homer Collyer's sensitive, very human soul.

Anne Neville is a staff reporter at The Buffalo News.

***

Homer & Langley

By E.L. Doctorow

Random House

208 pages, $26

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