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I was a teenager when the Collyer brothers were found dead in their Fifth Avenue brownstone. Instantly, they were folklore. And so there is the real historical existence of them and the mythological existence--two existences, as with Abe Lincoln, though of a less exalted standing. I didn’t know at the time that I would someday write about them, but even then I felt there was some secret to the Collyers--there was something about them still to be discovered under the piles of things in their house--the bales of newspapers and the accumulated detritus of their lives. Was it only that they were junk-collecting eccentrics? You see that every day in the streets of New York. They had opted out--that was the primary fact. Coming from a well-to-do family, with every advantage, they had locked the door and closed the shutters and absented themselves from the life around them. A major move, as life-transforming as emigration. In fact it was a form of emigration, of leave-taking. But where to? What country was within that house? What would have caused them to become the notorious recluses of Fifth Avenue? As myths, the brothers demanded not research but interpretation, and when a few years ago I was finally moved to do this book, I felt as if writing it was an act of breaking and entering just to see what may have been going on in that house, which really meant getting inside two very interesting minds. And with the first sentence, “I’m Homer, the blind brother,” I was in.
In one sense I think of Homer & Langley as a road novel--as if they are two people traveling together down a road and having adventures, though in fact they are housebound. It turns out that the world will not let them alone--others intrude on their privacy as if it is the road running through them. As for their collecting, I think of them as curators of their life and times, and their house as a museum of all our lives. That is my idea of them, that is my reading of the Collyer myth. I make them to be two brothers who opted out of civilization and pulled the world in after them.--E.L. Doctorow
(Photo © Philip Friedman)
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