By Charles Matthews

Saturday, October 22, 2011

4. Homer & Langley, by E.L. Doctorow, pp. 82-108

From "WE NEEDED SOMEONE to clean house ..." through "...gotten past the front door."

An agency refers a Mr. and Mrs. Hoshiyama as house-cleaners, but when the United States enters World War II, one day the Hoshiyamas are forced to leave their home in Brooklyn and move in with the Collyers. There is some cultural conflict with Mrs. Robileaux at first, but she adjusts because "she felt bad for these people, she knew what it meant to have rocks thrown through your window."

Langley contributes "to what was called the War Effort by selling off the copper rain gutters and chimney flashing of our house." He also sells the walnut paneling in the library and their father's study, though Homer questions whether that really contributes to the War Effort. Langley retorts that "if some muck-a-muck sitting on his keister in Washington wants walnut paneling for his office, it will be relevant to the War Effort."

Homer enjoys having the Hoshiyamas there, and they spend evenings listening to him play the piano. But one day the FBI arrives to take them away. Homer protests furiously, but Mr. Hoshiyama restrains him. "The Hoshiyamas were born fatalists. it was if they and the FBI men seemed to understand one another so as to make me and everything I said irrelevant. Langley is out when they are taken, and becomes angry when he returns. "This house is our inviolate realm, Langley said. I don't care what kind of damn badge they flash." But there is nothing they can do.

The Hoshiyamas leave behind them a tandem bicycle, which Homer and Langley begin to ride every day. The excursions last through the spring until a tire goes flat, after which the bicycle built for two joins other bicycles in Langley's collection. The Hoshiyamas also left a collection of small ivory carvings, which the brothers decide to keep until they return, "though they never did and I don't know now where any of the little ivory carvings are -- buried somewhere under everything else."

Old men collecting for Jewish war relief begin to stop at the house, and one of them, Alan Roses, is welcomed by Langley because he wears a Victory Medal from World War I. Both he and Langley had served in the same division in the Argonne. Roses is full of information about what is happening to the Jews of Germany and Eastern Europe, and Langley wonders, "How is it those old men who knocked on our door knew more than the news organizations?" Langley begins to scan the newspapers more closely: "The story was coming out on the back pages in dribs and drabs with no appreciation of the enormity of the horror." Both the atrocities and the indifference make Langley say, "Christ, what I wouldn't give to be something other than a human being."

They then learn that Harold Robileaux had joined the Army Air Forces and was overseas with a black squadron. And when Homer goes out, using a cane, he is approached by strangers who think he has been blinded in the service. They go to the movies with Mrs. Robileaux, who hopes to see Harold in one of the newsreels. Then one day they receive a phone call from Ella Robileaux, Harold's wife, who tells them of his death in North Africa. And they receive a V-record, a disk recording of Harold's voice that he had made and sent to his grandmother before his death. She misunderstands and thinks that it means he is still alive. At the end of the recording, he plays taps on his cornet, and after three or four listenings she realizes that he is dead. Langley goes out and buys gold-star pennants that he puts in the front windows on all four stories of the house. Then one day Mrs. Robileaux announces that she is leaving for New Orleans, to look for Harold's widow and baby. "Grandmamma had been the last connection to our past," and she leaves Homer and Langley on their own.

The end of the war leaves Homer depressed. Langley had accumulated a great store of gas masks during the war, as well as other army surplus, and for a time thinks of selling it at the flea markets. But "Langley never did work out the details of any business opportunity," so the military items join the rest of the detritus in the house. Except for the clothing, that is, which Homer and Langley take to wearing when their regular clothes wear out. Langley has also acquired an M1 rifle, which he hangs over the mantel beside his Springfield rifle from World War I. "We never touched them again and though at this point I cannot get anywhere near the mantel, so far as I know they are still there."

The Korean War and the nuclear arms race begin. The latter gives Langley some "hope that there would soon be a nuclear world war in which the human race would extinguish itself, to the great relief of God ... who would thank Himself and maybe turn His talents to creating a more enlightened form of creature on a fresh new planet somewhere."

Mrs. Robileaux's departure means that the brothers have to find a way of feeding themselves, which initially means dining out. But Langley grows concerned about the cost, and decides to cook at home. "I would sit patiently at the table long past the usual dinner hour, starving and in suspense, until something unnameable was laid before me." But Langley soon notices how thin his brother is going, so they start to eat out of cans, except for the oatmeal that Langley makes for breakfast every day.

Concerned about Homer's depression, Langley decides to buy a television set. It was the early days of TV, and Homer discovered that the screen "was square with rounded sides." Langley tells him to think of it as radio with pictures: "You don't have to see the picture. Just listen. You're not missing anything: what is static on a radio is like it's snowing on the TV. And when the picture does clear, it tends to float up off the screen only to rise again from the bottom." Eventually, Homer gives up on everything except news broadcasts and game shows. And the news shows are largely "about Communist spies and their worldwide conspiracy to destroy us," which doesn't cheer Homer up very much.

The game shows, on the other hand, are enjoyable because they are usually able to answer the questions before the contestants do, especially, in Homer's case, questions about classical and popular music, baseball and literature. Langley is good on history, philosophy, and science. They are so good that they think about applying to be contestants, but they realize that they don't quite fit the model of a TV game show contestant:
Of course I had some idea at the time that we were not sartorially typecast. He had told me the men predictably wore flannel suits and rep ties and crew cuts and women down-to-the-ankle skirts and blouses with big collars and bangy hairdos. Langley, who was now bald on top, had let the gray hair on the back of his head grow down to his shoulders. My own Lisztian fall from its center part was considerably thinned out. And our preferred dress was army greens and boots, leaving to the moths in the closets our old suits and blazers. We couldn't have gotten past the front door.

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