By Charles Matthews

Friday, October 21, 2011

3. Homer & Langley, by E.L. Doctorow, pp. 51-82

From "NOR WAS THERE any true consolation ..." through "... an industrial mummy."

Vincent, their new gangster acquaintance, sends over a couple of prostitutes one evening, and Homer and Langley are reluctant to send them away for fear of offending their new "and possibly murderous" friend. So they accept the women's favors, but Langley "was convinced that one way or another we would end up paying for my gangster friend's generosity, and that we had not heard the last of him." But in fact they have.

Langley for a time takes up with a woman named Anna, who is a radical, or as Langley describes her to Homer, "some kind of Socialist-anarchist-anarcho-syndicalist-Communist." But eventually she is deported back to Russia. Then Langley goes through a series of girls he meets in nightclubs, but finally marries a woman named Lila van Dijk. Unfortunately, she complains not only about his newspaper-hoarding but about everything else in his life, including Homer.

Their marriage gets off to a bad start at the wedding at her parents' home in Oyster Bay, when Langley comes dressed "in his usual baggy corduroys and an open shirt with the sleeves rolled." The final break comes when Mrs. Robileaux's grandson, Harold, arrives from New Orleans. He is a jazz musician and they create a room in the basement where he can practice his cornet. Harold tries to teach Homer to play jazz piano, but to no avail. Eventually, he forms a group with some other musicians, and use the Collyers' house as a place to rehearse. "We were all very happy about this except for Lila van Dijk, who couldn't believe that Langley would actually permit the Harold Robileaux Five to come play their vulgar music in the house without consulting her." And when they invite people in to listen, Lila has had enough and the marriage end.

The crowd that gathers for Harold's music gives Langley the idea of having tea-dances. He and Homer go to some dance halls to do research, and inevitably end up chatting with the women who worked there. "If they were satisfied you weren't a cop they might quietly make you a business proposition, which tended to happen to me more than Langley since you don't usually find police who are blind."

Langley decides they should hold tea-dances for people who weren't the type to frequent dance halls, and begins by inviting old friends of their parents and others they knew. Langley has begun collecting phonographs, so they use recorded music. The first guests are invited, but when people begin showing up without invitations, the brothers start charging admission.
I should say here that we were distinguished, we two brothers I mean, in having lost a good deal of our money well before the market crash, either from bad investments or our excessive nightclubbing and other spendthrift habits, though in fact we were far from destitute and things were never as bad for us as for other people. 
The tea-dances are so successful that they have to expand from the dining room into the drawing room and parlor. They charge a dollar per couple "and for that they got two hours of dancing, cookies and tea, and for an extra twenty-five cents, a glass of cream sherry." They discover that fast, lively music causes the dance floor to empty, and Homer explains to Langley, "The people who come to our tea dance have no fight left in them. They are not interested in having a good time. They come here to hold each other."

But the tea-dances take their toll: Siobhan, who has to move the furniture around and clean up afterward, is found dead one morning. She leaves a savings account of three hundred fifty dollars, which they give to Siobhan's church to take care of the funeral. They attend the burial in Queens with Mrs. Robileaux, whom they now call Grandmamma because Harold did. Harold has returned to New Orleans, and she worries that he's not doing as well playing in clubs as he claims. Homer experiences "that feeling one gets in a ride to a cemetery trailing a body in a coffin -- an impatience with the dead, a longing to be back home where one could get on with the illusion that not death but daily life is the permanent condition."

And then a notice gets in one of the newspapers about the tea-dances, and so many appear for the next one that they have to turn people away. The neighbors complain about the crowds, and a policeman shows up to say that they're violating an ordinance against operating a business out of a Fifth Avenue residence. He indicates his willingness to overlook it for a certain percent of the take, but Langley indignantly refuses. So in a week or two there is a raid, and the tea-dances are over.

Homer, Langley, and Mrs. Robileaux spend a night in jail. Langley is in a reflective mood and talks with Homer about the nature of popular music and its philosophical implications:
Well take that song where he says sometimes he's happy sometimes he's blue. 
" disposition depends on you."
Yes, well what if she's saying the same thing at the same time? 
The girl, I mean if her disposition depends on him at the same time his disposition depends on her? In that case two circumstances would prevail: either they would lock together in an unchanging state of sadness or happiness, in which case life would be unendurable--
That's not good. And what's the other circumstance? 
The other circumstance is that if they began disynchronously, and each was dependent on the other's disposition, there would be this constantly alternating mood current running between them, from misery to happiness and back again, so that they would each be driven mad by the emotional instability of the other.
In the end, the charges are dismissed.

The house seems "cavernous" when they return, the furniture having been moved out and the rugs rolled up for the dancing. "And the odor of Langley's stacks of newspapers ... was now apparent, a musty smell that would be especially noticeable on days of rain or dampness." Records and phonographs were broken in the melee, and Langley decides to sort the rubble into cardboard boxes. "Naturally I didn't understand it as such, but this time marked the beginning of our abandonment of the outer world."

Homer is sick in bed when Langley decides to put a Model T Ford in the dining room, transforming it into a garage, "complete with the smell of motor oil." Homer can hear the sounds, "lots of grunting and hammering," as it is assembled, and thinks that Langley might be erecting a statue there. One day, Grandmamma Robileaux brings him a bowl of soup and says, "I knew when he came home from that war your brother's mind weren't right." She complains that her floor is "all tracked up with their boots, the back door off its hinges, black mechanical things, auto-mobile things, swinging through the window like clothes on a line." Homer is astonished, but assures her "There is some intelligent purpose behind this," though he hasn't "the remotest idea of what it might be."

So when he's well and goes back downstairs he asks Langley, "If you were going to bring a car into the house, why not a modern up-to-date model?" Langley explains that it was cheap, but Homer persists, saying that Mrs. Robileaux "wonders why something from the street has to be in the dining room. Why something made for the outside is inside." Langley asks how you can "make an ontological distinction between outside and inside," but Homer realizes that he doesn't really have a reason for doing it. The car was just something he had seen on the street and decided that "he must have it while trusting that the reason he found it so valuable would eventually become clear to him."

First Langley claims that the car is their "family totem," and then he conceives of a practical reason. He decides their electric bills are too high and decides to use the engine as a generator. But the smell of gasoline drives Homer and Mrs. Robileaux from the house. "Thereafter, the Model T just stood there accumulating dust and cobwebs, and filling up with stacks of newspapers, and various other collectibles. Langley never mentioned it again, nor did I."

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