E.L. Doctorow's newest novel is a slight, bouncy trip through some highlights of the 20th century, viewed through the lens of two brothers, one of them blind, who barely ever leave their house on Fifth Avenue.
The blind brother, Homer, serves as narrator. And lest you think it some artistic flight of fancy that led Doctorow to name his blind character Homer, you should know that Homer and Langley Collyer are based on the real-life Collyer brothers, who were infamous New York eccentrics and hoarders. Homer begins his narration by explaining that despite losing his sight as a teenager he never felt himself to be disabled. He describes his curiousity at the rapid detrioration of his vision, going across to view the ice skaters in the park and watching the trees and then the skaters and then the ice itself faded away, until he could only hear the scratch of the skates.
The narration is conversational and enthusiastic, and reads quickly. Homer's front of optimism is welcome, because he has some sad things to tell. After his sighted brother Langley goes off to the Great War, Homer watches his parents die of the Spanish Flu. When Langley comes back he is in poor health thanks to mustard gas and has become extremely cynical about the world and the way it works.
Doctorow does a great job depicting Langley's eccentricity, convincingly rationalizing the real Langley's hoarding and other peculiarities. Doctorow's Langley collects all the daily newspapers and studies them furiously. He believes that he can develop a newspaper for all times. His Theory of Replacement states that nothing ever changes really, it just gets replaced. So the stories in his paper will always be the same, and you can just fill in the blanks yourself. "War with _ Continues", "Workers Exploited by Corporation" for some examples.
The novel takes an episodic form, with each one defined by the people the Collyer's allow into their home. The brothers are kind of heart and take in quite a few people. There is a poor piano student (Homer gives her lessons); their cook's cornet-playing grandson; a mob boss hiding out after being shot in the ear; and a gaggle of hippies who mistake the grungy Collyers for like-minded souls.
Some of these episodes are a little wearing, especially in the way they so explicitly plug into the zeitgeist. The novel tends to do that Forrest Gump thing where it scans through American history without really touching on anything and making a real statement. (Most of the events of the novel are referred to obliquely, without names or other specifics. And some late potshots at people like Nixon are especially arbitrary and unnecessary.)
The novel is strongest in it depiction of the Collyer brothers' relationship. Langley and Homer love each other dearly, but Langley's love, though, pure, is also quite destructive. His absurd beliefs that sight can be restored through diet and exercise tax Homer unnecessarily, and the constant hoarding (of newspapers, pianos, typewriters, and even a Model T in the kitchen) endangers blind Homer, who once could effortlessly walk around the house from memory.
Doctorow is fairly old, and has covered American history in much further depth, so perhaps he can and should be forgiven for its cursory appearance here. Where he shows his true skill is in the title characters, and he shows that age has not dinted what nature provided, his singular talent.