By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

7. Homer & Langley, by E.L. Doctorow, pp. 169-208

From "OUR SHUTTERS WERE never again to be  ..." through "... Where is my brother?"

With the closing of the shutters comes more and more of a retreat from the world. Langley begins having the newspapers delivered instead of going out to buy them, and he goes out only at night. The changing demographics of the neighborhood -- the arrival of Latinos and blacks -- "was enough for our neighbors to throw up their hands," and for anonymous letter writers to blame it on the Collyers.

Langley pays less attention to his universal newspaper project and more to "his legal studies with the mail-order law school," in an effort to deal with creditors. Homer realizes that Langley enjoys it, and he approves of this turn toward the practical. "It brought a here-and-now component to his life, an immediacy, and the promise, good or bad, of an outcome, which was not the case with his eternal, never-to-be-achieved, Platonic newspaper." But it is also a time in which the city itself seems to be decaying, and Homer's life is increasingly confined to the house.

Then Homer notices that his piano seems to be going out of tune in the middle octaves. And when he checks the player piano, and an electronic keyboard that Langley had brought home, he finds the same distortion of sound. "At that moment I understood it was not any piano but my hearing that was off-key. I was hearing a C as a C-sharp." He is going deaf. It is a gradual process, "allowing me progressive degrees of acceptance," and he decides not to tell Langley about it.

Then their various legal battles attract the attention of the press. A reporter rings their bell and his obnoxious behavior makes them realize that they are fodder for the "human interest" story. Langley reads to him "this supposedly factual account about these weird eccentrics who had shuttered their windows and bolted their doors and run up thousands of dollars in unpaid bills though they were worth millions." The story gets Langley's name wrong, calling him "Larry," as well as their ages. Homer asks how Langley's newspaper would cover them. "We are sui generis, Homer, he said. Unless someone comes along as remarkably prophetic as we are, I'm obliged to ignore our existence."

By researching the Collyers' ancestry, the newspapers turn their story into "the decline of a House, the Fall of a respectable family." But Homer argues the opposite: "After all, we were living original self-directed lives unintimidated by convention -- could we not be a supreming of the line, a flowering of the family tree?"

Langley begins to hear a scurrying sound in the house, and when it's brought to his attention, Homer hears it too. "The sound was not that of something small, and not of a timid interloper, but of something living in our house impertinently, without our leave." So Langley begins bringing home stray cats to try to trap whatever it is.
Apparently the mysterious creature or family of creatures -- for I was coming to believe that more than one was involved -- had so befouled their residence over the dining room that the sodden ceiling buckled, looking, said Langley, like the bottom of the moon, and down came the chandelier -- like some sort of parachute on a cable -- shattering against the Model T, the pendant crystals flying off in every direction and scattering the yowling cats. 
When a banker and a city marshal arrive with a summons, threatening their eviction, Langley handles it with a calm that surprises Homer, requesting a hearing which "meant lawyers for the bank and endless protraction of the dispute before any eviction could occur." He continues to point out the eventual legal complications, drawing on knowledge from his law books, and concludes by telling them to "get the hell off our property." It is after this confrontation that they do in fact pay off the mortgage. Langley walks "nearly half the length of Manhattan" to the bank, an action that is misreported in the press: "my brother wasn't trying merely to save carfare -- that was a secondary consideration. Really he wanted to keep the officers of the Dime Savings in a state of suspense."

While Langley is walking out on his errand, Homer decides to make a rare venture outside. It is a warm spring morning, but when he starts to cross the street, thinking that the traffic has stopped, his fading hearing fails him: "I'd already stepped off the curb when a woman called out No! -- or Non! -- for this was Jacqueline Roux, the about-to-be dear friend of my end of life.... And in this way, and not the only time, did Jacqueline Roux save my life."

She not only helps Homer cross the street, she goes with him into the park and sits with him on a bench. And she explains that she had come to see him because "you and your brother are famous now in France." He protests when he learns that she is a reporter for Le Monde, but she persists: "I am not here to interview you. I am to write about your country. I have been everywhere because I don't know what I am looking for." Her article is to be about "what cannot be seen," the "secrets" of America. She asks him about the closed shutters on the house. Houses in Europe have shutters "because of our history," she says. But in America "homes confront the street unafraid, for everyone to see. So why do you have black shutters on your windows, Homer Collyer?"

Homer is unable to explain, but as their conversation goes on he feels it bringing out in him a "competitive intelligence," or perhaps just flirtation. They talk about Central Park, and she tells him of a sensation she once had "that the Central Park was sunken at the bottom of the city. And with its ponds and pools and lakes as if, you know, it is slowly sinking?" He is "enchanted by the intensity of her conversation -- so poetic, so philosophical, so French, for all I knew. But at the same time it was all too fanciful for me."

He is glad that she isn't "trying out her ideas on Langley," who would have been too impatient with her. He realizes that her ideas about Central Park and shutters are "bizarre," but at the same time "her passionate engagement with her ideas was a revelation to me," and he envies her life, "going around the world and making up things about it." When the time comes to return to the house he invites her in, but she replies, "Ah no, merci, I have appointments. But sometime, yes." She lets him feel her face, though he doesn't touch her lips. She tells him she has been married, but isn't anymore, and that she has a son in secondary school in Paris. And that she will return to New York in a few weeks and they should have coffee. They part.

Langley is unimpressed when Homer reports on this encounter, telling him, "you have always been susceptible to the ladies, do you know that?" But Homer, expecting another visit from Jacqueline, decides that he wants a haircut and a new suit, and that he wants to eat more -- she has remarked on his thinness. But Langley also picks up on the fact that Jacqueline had helped Homer cross the street, which confirms Langley's suspicions that his brother is growing deaf. He studies the books in their father's library and one day tries a test of Homer's hearing, but goes no further with that.

Jacqueline doesn't call again, and he realizes that he has let his imagination run wild. "The haircuts I got and the new suit of clothes I had bought in anticipation of her return were like any other played-out fantasies of mine." So he turns back to what he "could rely on, the filial bond." But Langley is depressed, too. "Whereas I was relieved that we no longer had to worry about losing our home, he felt amortization, militarily, as a defeat." He is roused to battle again by a new enemy: Con Edison, which turns off the power because they haven't paid their bills.
He went out and bought marine lamps, wilderness lamps, long-handled searchlights, propane lamps, mercury lamps, hurricane lamps, pocket flashlights, high-intensity beam lamps on poles, and for the upstairs hall with its clerestory window, a battery-powered sodium lamp which went on automatically as daylight faded.
Homer is glad they haven't found their candles, which might have set fire to the place.

When the water is turned off as well, Langley is inspired to further efforts at independence, and the brothers set out every day before dawn with two baby carriages in which they haul home the water from an "old water post from the days when water was made available for horses." They restrict their bathroom use to the one in the ground-floor guest room, and for drinking water they fill thermoses and canteens at a drinking fountain in the park.

Children, perhaps having seen the brothers filling their canteens at the fountain, begin throwing rocks at the shutters. At first, Langley runs out to chase them away, but that only makes the children more active. So the brothers decide to endure it. Once, Langley peers out through the shutters and says that some of them are teenagers. "So you are right, Homer, this may be citywide, and we have the rare privilege of an advanced look at the replacement citizenry for the millennium." Langley considers using some of their guns to intimidate the tormentors, but Homer says they'll stop when the weather turns cold, and they do.

Something that Langley says bothers Homer: "He said everything alive was at war." He reflects on their situation and worries about "being turned into a mythic joke." Once they are gone, will anyone understand what they were? "My brother and I were going down, and he, lung-shot and half insane, knew that better than I." And so Homer begins to chronicle their lives, taking Jacqueline Roux as his muse. He imagines that she has returned, and that they dine together and he plays music for her. He confesses that he is a blind man going deaf, and she considers this as "a problem to be solved. Why not write, then, she says. There is music in words, and it can be heard you know, by thinking." He should write about his life: "Your life across from the park. Your history deserving of the black shutters. Your house that is a greater attraction than the Empire State Building."

Langley had encouraged Homer to write, making sure that he has a Braille typewriter and plenty of paper.
I have been at it for some time now. I have no clear sense of how long. I sense the passage of time as a spatial thing, as Langley's voice has become fainter and fainter, as if he has walked off down a long road, or is falling away in space, or as if some other sound that I can't hear, a waterfall, has washed away his words.
Langley develops a system of signals, of touches on Homer's arm to communicate when it is time to eat or go to bed, and he learns Braille so that he can give Homer other messages by placing his finger on the Braille keys of the typewriter to spell out the words. But a prowler tries to break in one night, and Langley hears other sounds that suggest people may be trying to get in, attracted by stories "that the Collyers, distrustful of banks, keep enormous amounts of cash stashed away." He builds barriers and boobytraps, with the result that Homer is essentially imprisoned in the house, unable to move about by himself.

"My bed is a mattress on the floor beside my typing table," Homer writes, and tells us that Langley sleeps on the kitchen table that once was a bed for Vincent. Rats begin to take over, and Homer sometimes feels them at his feet. "There are moments when I cannot bear this unremitting consciousness. It knows only itself. The images of things are not the things themselves." But he is brought back by the touch of his brother's hand. Until the day that there is a crash that shakes the house and Langley comes no more.

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