“So now all of that was public knowledge but what was the point except to indicate the decline of a House, the Fall of a reputable family, the shame of all that history in that it had led to us, the without-issue Collyer brothers lurking behind closed doors and coming out only at night.” (177)
This statement by the narrator, Homer Collyer, serves to summarize this historical fiction novel by E. L. Doctorow. The house is just as an important character as the two brothers, Homer and Langley, and all of them play off each other with detail and significance. As the 20th century passes by, Homer plays hide and seek with the world outside, while inside Langley is hoarding everything from newspapers to pianos to an old car. The way their life unravels from privileged children to hoarders lacking water and electricity is documented step by step. They stop paying their bills, and steadily begin an attempt to shut out the world, although this makes them become infamous in their neighborhood and an anecdote in the newspapers.
“For what could be more terrible than being turned into a mythic joke? …Our every act of opposition and assertion of our self-reliance, every instance of our creativity and resolute expression of our principles was in service of our ruination.” (200)
The novel is fascinating in both how the brothers relate to each other as well as how differently they interpret world events. At a few points, it seemed a bit too Forrest Gump-ish in the style where everything seems to relate to them, as if they featured in each significant event. Part of that comes from Langley’s compulsive collection of newspapers; his goal, to write one newspaper that would be applicable to any day.
Knowing that the Collyer’s were real people makes this fictionalized novel more interesting, but I would take it a step further and suggest before reading it to read a short biography of them online. I did it in reverse, looking them up after, and wish I had done so before. Their story is fascinating, and seeing both the true and imagined makes for a dynamic read. I didn't love it as much as I expected to, but it was fascinating and a sidelong view into the habits of the hoarder.