By Charles Matthews

Sunday, October 23, 2011

5. Homer & Langley, by E.L. Doctorow, pp. 108-136

From "CHRIST, IF THERE was ever ..." through "... to destroy another with confidence."

Langley quickly develops a distaste for television, likening the American viewing public to the shrunken heads of the Jivaro, but one thing does capture their attention on it: "the hearings of a Senate committee investigating organized crime." And one of the witnesses turns out to be their old acquaintance, Vincent. Homer is the first to recognize him, by his voice. Langley says he's heavier and balder, but Homer is certain: "How many gangsters speak in a whisper with an attached wheeze in high C?"

The tabloids confirm Vincent's identity, with headlines like "Vincent Rats!" After the hearings end, Langley pulls the plug on the TV and they don't get it out again until the astronauts land on the moon. But a few weeks later the newspapers report that Vincent has been shot in an East Side restaurant. His associates carried him away, and there is no confirmation that he is dead. And then the phone rings at the Collyer house: A voice asks if this is the archdiocese, and Homer tells them no. Then there is a pounding at the door, and when they open it three men carry in a bleeding Vincent.

One of the three men is Vincent's son, Massimo, whose voice Homer recognizes as the man on the phone. The other two had driven Homer and Langley from the club that night long ago. Vincent's left ear has been shot off, and the men had recognized the house from their earlier visit. The phone call had established that Homer and Langley still lived there. Langley finds some gauze, tape, and iodine and begins to treat the wounded ear, and the men carry Vincent into the kitchen, where they put a mattress on the table for Vincent, who keeps up a stream of abuse of his son, to lie on. Homer notices that Massimo is very different from his father, suffering the abuse without complaint. "Some years later, when Vincent was finally shot to death, Massimo became the head of that crime family and was even more feared than his father had been."

Vincent doesn't recognize the Collyers, which makes Homer feel somehow humiliated. They remain at the house for four days, during which Vincent orders the phone removed, which Langley does gladly, yanking it from the wall and flinging it across the room where it breaks the glass on one of their father's bookcases. "The men were dumbfounded by the state of the hideaway they had chosen," and when they discover the Model T in the dining room Homer hears "them talking among themselves as to how glad they would be to escape from this place -- madhouse, I think, is the word they used."

Meanwhile, Langley types away on his newspaper project -- he has started collecting typewriters, including one with a Braille keyboard for Homer -- and Langley practices daily on the piano. On the fourth day there is a terrible crash and Vincent's men run to the kitchen to see about their boss. He is cowering in the pantry, and asks them, "You hear that?" They all heard "the rat-a-tat of something relentlessly mechanical, like the deadly sputter of a tommy gun." Vincent had been awakened by it and had fallen off the table. But Homer points to the ceiling and reveals that it is Langley typing in the room above, with the typewriter placed on a spindly card table. It created "a darker hammering tone that, I suppose, if you were a sleeping gangster who had recently been shot at, could have sounded like another attempt on your life."

When he figures out what it is, Vincent laughs, permitting the others to laugh as well, and decides that it's time for them to think about leaving what he calls "this rat's nest," and set about getting even with the men who had shot him. He finds one of Langley's army surplus helmets and some fatigues that fit him, and they put his blood-stained clothes in the washing machine. While waiting for his clothes to wash and dry, Vincent hears the typewriter again and tells Massimo to take care of it. "Massimo, showing an initiative in an effort to please his father, brought the typewriter down in his arms and Vincent took it and heaved it across the room and I heard it come apart with a silvery shatter, like a piece of china."

Then, when they're ready to go, they tie Homer and Langley to a pair of kitchen chairs, back to back. "You will never say a word, Vincent said. You will keep your mouths shut or we will come back and shut them for you." Homer is offended: "At no time did they consider us worth shooting." While they are sitting there, unable to move, Langley tells Homer a story about the time their parents took them "to a kind of religious resort on a lake somewhere upstate." Homer was too young to remember, but Langley recalls how pleasant everything and everyone was.
You couldn't walk a few steps without being greeted with big smiles. And I tell you, I had never in my young life been so terrified. Because what could the purpose of such a place be but to persuade people that this was what Heaven would be like? What other purpose than to give an inkling of the joys of eternal life? I was young enough to think there was such a thing as heaven ... to imagine myself spending eternity with the banjo band in their straw boaters and striped jackets, to think I might someday be stuck there among all these imbecilic happy people praying and singing and being educated in worthy subjects.... And I made a vow: I would do whatever it might take to avoid going to Heaven.
And now the Collyer brothers are tied up in their kitchen, which Langley takes as a reminder that "there is only life and death and such varieties of human torment as to confound any such personage as God." This cheers Homer up because their predicament "is just something else to deal with, so they remember how old and fragile the chairs are, tip themselves over and break free. They discuss going to the police, but Langley quotes Emerson's "Self-Reliance" and says they don't need anyone's help or protection.

Vincent had left a couple of hundred-dollar bills for them, and Langley goes out and buys some heavy louvered shutters for the windows and reinforces the front door with steel and a two-by-four brace. The shutters darken the front rooms, however, so after a while they open them again.

Langley then decides that Homer is "getting soft" and fits the Hoshiyamas' bicycle on a frame so Homer can exercise on it, and insists on a brisk walk around the block every day. He also begins forcing on Homer vitamins and health food that he finds advertised in a nudist magazine. And Langley decides to do something about Homer's deprivation when it comes to the visual arts by arranging "a course of tactile art appreciation," using some erotic "carvings of Oriental couples making love," as well as other sculptures he picks up at flea markets.

Then Langley decides that perhaps he can restore Homer's sight. "Rods and cones are what make the eye see, he told me. They're the basis of everything. And if a damn lizard can grow a new tail why can't a human being grow new rods and cones?" He tries working with children's finger paints to see if Homer can distinguish the colors by touch, which he can't. And he has him feel the paintings in the house that Homer remembers from the days when he could see. "I knew each painting by its placement, but visualizing it by touch was another matter, I felt only brushstrokes and dust." And Langley himself takes up painting while Homer plays the piano: "I was not to play pieces, I was to improvise and the resulting canvas would be the translation to the visual of what I had rendered in sound. Presumably, when the paint dried, in some synaptic flash of realization, I would see sound, or hear pain, and the rods and cones would begin to sprout and glow with life."

Homer goes along with it, though he considers "the possibility that my brother was insane." Finally, Langley gets so interested in painting for itself that he forgets about its therapeutic aims, to Homer's relief. And Homer's improvising at the piano makes him interested in composition, so he starts "working up études, ballades, sonatinas and, being unable to write them down, fixing them in my memory." Langley realizes what he is doing, so he goes out and buys a wire recording machine, and later some tape recorders, so Homer can hear himself and make changes in his compositions. "I felt that neither of the Collyer brothers had ever been happier at this time." Eventually both the paintings and the compositions fall by the wayside, and the pictures and recording disappear into the detritus of the house.

Langley does one final painting when the astronauts walk on the moon. He has Homer touch it, and he feels "a sandy surface embedded with rocks and cratered with mounds of what seemed to be some sort of sanded epoxy glue." Embedded in it is what turns out to be a golf club, and several small books whose pages are stiff with glue, "sticking up as if blow by the wind -- three or four of these in various sizes. Is there wind on the moon? I said. There is now, my brother said." Homer doesn't think it's very good: "I had no trouble visualizing it, was the problem." And Langley realizes it's an expression of his rage at the "crassness" of hitting golf balls on the moon and reading the Bible on its surface. "The entire class of blasphemies is in those two acts, he said. The one stupidly irreverent, the other stupidly presumptuous."

Homer, on the other hand, argues for the sheer achievement of going to the moon: "I would forgive those astronauts whatever they did." But Langley argues, "The bad news is that if we do in fact get off the earth we will contaminate the rest of the universe with our moral insufficiency." He does realize, however, that he will have to make a new category for his universal newspaper: "technological achievement."
The ultimate technological achievement will be escaping from the mess we've made. There will be none after that because we will reproduce everything that we did on earth, we'll go through the whole sequence all over again somewhere else, and people will read my paper as prophecy, and know that having gotten off one planet, they will be able to destroy another with confidence.

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