Homer Collyer, the narrator, tells us that he began losing his sight in his late teens, watching things gradually fade out over the course of a long winter. But he had "exceptional hearing,' and trained it "to a degree of alertness that was almost visual." Fascinated by Homer's bat-like hearing, his older brother, Langley, would test it with experiments throughout their family's four-story house, through which Homer could move without hesitation. In the music room, Langley would move the grand piano to another corner from the one it usually sat in, and place a folding screen in the middle of the room, then spin Homer about before letting him go.
I had to laugh because don't you know I walked right around that folding screen and sat down at the piano exactly as if I knew where he had put it, as I did, I could hear surfaces, and I said to Langley, A blind bat whistles, that's the way he does it, but I didn't have to whistle, did I?The historical Langley brothers, a pair of recluses who lived in a Harlem brownstone until their death in 1947, were somewhat different: Homer, for example, was the older brother by four years, not the younger by two, as Doctorow has it. And Homer didn't lose his sight until he was in his fifties. And Langley was the concert-level pianist, not Homer. Doctorow will also extend their lives well beyond 1947, finding yet another way to do what his novels typically do: view American history as it passes by, this time just incidentally touching the lives of the brothers.
Homer tells us that in these years -- "well before the Great War" -- he was a student at "the West End Conservatory of Music" and Langley was attending Columbia. His supposed "helplessness" is attractive to women when "the days of the flapper and women smoking cigarettes and drinking martinis were in the unimaginable future." He cultivated "Franz Lisztian hair" and "had a sexual experience or two in this time I am describing, this time of my blind life as a handsome young fellow not yet twenty." His parents were still alive and gave "soirees" in their home, "a monumental tribute to late Victorian design." Each year, their parents would travel abroad for a month and collect things: "ancient Islamic tiles, or rare books, or a marble water fountain, or busts of Romans with no noses or missing ears, or antique armoires with their fecal smell."
The brothers would attend summer camp in Maine, and at fourteen, before losing his sight, Homer falls in love with Eleanor, who attends the adjacent girls' camp. At night they would slip out of their camps and meet "to wander about under the stars and talk philosophically about life." Then one night they come across a lodge for adults, and through the window they see a group watching "what in later time would be called a blue movie." They witness the sexual activity of "The woman on the screen, naked but for a pair of high-heeled shoes" and "an ugly bald skinny man" with an enormous penis.
Homer is transfixed by what he is seeing, but when he turns around Eleanor has disappeared. "The summer had some weeks to go but my friend Eleanor never spoke to me again, or even looked my way, a decision I accepted as an accomplice, by gender, of the male performer. But he is struck by the difference between the performers in the movie and the staidness of his parents, for whom "Life was made tolerable by its formalities. Even the most intimate relationships were addressed in formal terms." But the result of this formal and predictable character is that his parents have faded from memory: "I can remember a girl knew slightly, like that Eleanor, but of my parents, for instance, I remember not one word that either of them ever said."
Langley is a theorist, and one of his theories is "Langley's Theory of Replacements": "Everything in life gets replaced. We are our parents' replacements just as they were replacements of the previous generation." Homer objects that we are individuals: "A genius like Beethoven cannot be replaced." But Langley counters that "Beethoven was a genius for his time. We have the notations of his genius but he is not our genius. We will have our geniuses, and if not in music then in science or art." It is a matter, he says, of our "social constructions."
Homer objects that the idea of replacements negates the idea of progress. Langley replies, "There is progress while at the same time nothing changes." Homer by now has realized that "Langley's theory was something he was making up as he went along" and that "what Langley called his Theory of Replacements was his bitterness of life or despair of it." But one consequence of this theory is that Langley begins to hoard newspapers. He has been reading to Homer -- although Homer has learned Braille and even read Gibbon's Decline and Fall in Braille -- from popular novels, and before switching to newspapers -- "reading to me of the war in Europe to which he was destined to go" -- Langley has brought home "slim volumes of poetry and read from them as if poems were news." Homer doesn't remember the names of the poets, but he sometimes remembers lines from them: "Like Generations have trod, have trod, have trod / And all is seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil." That bit of Gerard Manley Hopkins is "a Langley idea."
Then Langley goes off to fight in World War I, taking "the place of a dead Allied soldier, just according to his theory." Homer feels his brother's face to try to memorize it, and observes, "He stood straight and tall, taller and straighter than he would ever be again." Homer is without his brother for the first time in his life, and soon will be without his parents, who die in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Then Langley is reported missing in action, and Homer asks himself "if it was possible for my entire family to be wiped out in the space of a month or two." He decides that it isn't possible, and he's right: Langley writes from a hospital in Paris to say that he "had been gassed on the western front. Nothing fatal, he said."
Until Langley returns, Homer depends on the servants. He fires the butler, who "was too slyly solicitous of me, now that I was in charge and no longer the son." Besides, his name is Wolf and he is a German. Wolf challenges him on that score, and Homer asks if Wolf is short for Wolfgang. When he says yes, Homer tells him, "I'm firing you because you have no right to the name of the greatest genius in the history of music." Homer is left with only the cook, the Irish maid Siobhan "and the younger Hungarian girl Julia, who smelled of almonds and whom I eventually took to bed."
Once a week he walks down down Fifth Avenue to the bank, to take care of his father's estate and the household management. He takes a cane but doesn't use it, having memorized "everything for twenty blocks south and north, and as far east as First Avenue and to the paths in the park across the street all the way to Central Park West." He "gauged the progress of our times by the changing sounds and smells of the streets."
These were the days I thought I was acting responsibly, carrying on as a replacement of the previous Collyers as if I was hoping for their posthumous approval. And then Langley came home from the World War and I realized how foolish I had been.