By Charles Matthews

Monday, October 24, 2011

6. Homer & Langley, by E.L. Doctorow, pp. 136-169

From "I'M RECALLING NOW that tale of Quasimodo ..." through "... the prophecy of Langley's timeless newspaper."

Homer yearns for a soulmate, "some woman who would take up with me from some genius of her own loving spirit," and his model is his former piano student, Mary Elizabeth Riordan. And suddenly she writes to them: She is Sister M.E. Riordan, a missionary in the Belgian Congo. Homer has Langley read and re-read the letter to him, trying to get used to the idea that she is now a nun, but in the end he feels "betrayed": "I could match in neediness any broken-down indigent of the Congo."

She includes a photograph of herself with some children, and Langley says she looks "heavier," and reminds Homer that she must be over fifty now. But Homer is trapped in some erotic idealization of the Mary Elizabeth he had known.

The Vietnam War, "another damnable war," is being waged, and Homer and Langley decide to go to a protest rally in Central Park. Their long hair and their jeans and boots make them fit in, and soon they are sitting with hippies "on the Great Lawn and taking swigs from their wine bottles and breathing the fine acrid scent of their marijuana cigarettes." When it grows dark and the police chase the crowd from the park, some of their new friends follow them home.
They stood in awe in the dim light of the dining room looking upon our Model T on its sunken tires and with the cobwebs of years draped over it like an intricate netting of cat's cradles, and one of the girls, Lissy -- the one I was to bond with -- Lissy said, Oh, wow! and I considered the possibility, after drinking too much of their bad wine, that my brother and I were, willy-nilly and ipso facto, prophets of a new age.
The oldest of the group, JoJo, is twenty-three, and the others are eighteen or nineteen. JoJo takes it on himself to bale up Langley's newspapers and to create a maze of pathways through the house, using the bundles as building blocks. Connor is a cartoonist, and works Homer and Langley into his drawings. Langley plans to buy them, saying, "Museums will bid for them one day." The other girls are named Dawn and Sundown, and Langley sleeps with them. Homer prefers Lissy, who grew up in San Francisco and whom he regards as the brightest.

They stay with the Collyers for a month, disappearing occasionally, taking odd jobs, and drawing others to the house. "I was sure ours was the only pad on upper Fifth Avenue, which gave us some distinction." Homer finds himself falling in love with Lissy, who is fascinated by his blindness and sometimes walks around with her eyes closed to see what it's like. She reads to him from Siddhartha -- "a novel in which a Buddha-inflamed German wandered about seeking enlightenment" -- and Homer has to restrain from telling her "how funny I thought that was." One night, after washing Homer's feet in a ritual fashion, she decides to practice meditation with him, but the only place to sit in a lotus position in his room is on the bed, which leads to the inevitable.
Afterward, I held her in my arms and then there was a moment of mental confusion, some weird misstep of time itself, because I was briefly under the illusion that it was Sister Mary Elizabeth Riordan I was holding.
He wants to talk about this "momentary illusion" with Langley, but his brother is busy with the others, who are as avid at scavenging as he is. He buys a portable kerosene stove to end their "indebtedness to the gas company," and all sorts of kitchen equipment for their communal meals. JoJo has procured an electric guitar and speaker, and Langley adds to it with more speakers and recording equipment.

Homer wants to tell Langley that he has developed his own Theory of Replacements, but instead of generational, Homer's theory is lateral: "If what mattered was the universal form of Dear Girl, and if each dear girl was only a particular expression of the universal, any one of them might serve equally well, and could replace another as our morally insufficient nature demanded."

But then the weather starts to grow colder, and "none of these people could accept winter." They have a large communal farewell meal, and "Langley and I for the first and last time in our lives smoked joints, and my memory of the rest of the evening is a little blurry, except that both Dawn and Sundown seemed to have discovered me at this late date." He wakes up to find Lissy crying, but she won't say why. "Was it because I was an old man and she was overwhelmed with pity? Had she realized, finally, the ruinous state of this house?"

A few days later the lights go out: It is the great Northeast Blackout of 1965. "The house by this time of our lives was a labyrinth of hazardous pathways, full of obstructions and many dead ends." But Homer is used to navigating it and so he goes through the house from the top down, calling out to people "and telling them to attach themselves to me, like boxcars to an engine." The train gets longer and longer as it descends through the house -- "clearly there were more of our hippie friends in residence than I had known about." Lissy is just behind Homer, and she decides to turn it into a conga line. Finally, they reach the front door, and "they all flew past me like birds from the cage." He hears them laughing "as they fled across the street and into the park, all of them, including by brother, though he would come back, but the others, never, their laughter diminishing through the trees, for that was the last of them, they were gone."

After the hippies leave, the kerosene stove catches fire, and Langley manages to smother the flames and toss the thing into the back yard. But before long the fire department arrives, having been called by the next-door neighbors, who "had reported that our backyard was on fire, which happened to have been the case." Langley complains about the mud tracked in and the trail of breakage as the fire fighters drag the hoses through the house. And a week or so later, they receive a letter from the Health Department, which apparently had received a report from the fire department about the state of the interior of the house. They ignore the letter as an intrusion on their freedom, but Langley orders a set of law books from a correspondence school
By the time the books arrived -- in a crate -- we were in the sights not only of the Health Department, but of a collection agency acting on behalf of the New York Telephone Company, of lawyers from Consolidated Edison for having damaged their property -- I assume they meant the electric meter in the basement, an irritating buzzing thingamajig which we had silenced with a hammer -- and of the Dime Savings Bank, which had inherited our mortgage and claimed that in failing to meet our payments we were facing foreclosure, and the Woodlawn Cemetery had drawn a bead because we had somehow forgotten to pay the bills for the care of our parents' grave site.
Homer argues that they should just pay off the mortgage, which they have enough money to do, but Langley worries about losing the mortgage interest deduction on their taxes. Homer points out that they don't pay their taxes anyway, but Langley has a counterargument "having to do with the war" and including "a discourse on corporate usury." Eventually he agrees, however, but when he goes to the bank to pay off the mortgage he is followed by reporters and by a photographer from the Daily News who wins a Pulitzer "for his portrait of Langley shuffling down Fifth Avenue in a porkpie hat, a ragged coat down to his ankles, a shawl he'd made from a burlap sack, and house slippers."

But their own troubles are put in perspective by "a period of appalling human behavior" that includes the Birmingham church bombing, which reveals to Langley "yet another category of seminal events for his ultimate newspaper -- the murder of innocents." He adds the Kent State shooting and the murders of civil rights workers, as well as the political assassinations and the arrests of anti-war protesters. Then comes the Jonestown massacre, which he puts "in a pending file of one-of-a-kind headline events. There it must stay awaiting another episode of insane lemminglike behavior to pop up again. As I suspect it will, he added." Another category includes the subversion of the Constitution by the president.

And then one day Langley comes in with the morning papers, goes to the windows, pulls the shutters together and locks them. Homer feels a kind of dread, and then Langley reads to him: "The bodies of four American nuns in a remote Central American village had been found in shallow graves. They had been raped and shot to death." Homer's initial reaction is denial: "we couldn't be sure that Mary Elizabeth Riordan was one of the nuns." But Langley goes to the box where they have kept her letters, and the last one "had been written a few months before from the same village named in the newspaper."

Homer recalls sitting by her on the piano bench, and earlier when she had prompted him in his accompaniment of the silent movies. He says to Langley, "This is martyrdom, this is what martyrdom is." But Langley is too angry for that, and can see only the senselessness in the deaths. Homer, recalling the argument, says, "Either my mind is turning in on itself and its memories are eliding, or I have finally understood the prophecy of Langley's timeless newspaper."

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