The Escape of the Collyers

Dominique Nabokov
E.L. Doctorow, New York City, 1980

“The idea of a house built so that people could become lost in it,” Borges writes in his Book of Imaginary Beings, “is perhaps more unusual than that of a man with a bull’s head.” The four-story Victorian mansion on upper Fifth Avenue where the Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley, spend their well-upholstered childhood—as recaptured in E.L. Doctorow’s wondrous new novel—is already a labyrinthine house to get lost in, with its “tufted Empire side chairs” and smothering curtains, its “standing lamps with tasseled shades and matching chinois amphora that you could almost step into.”

The stolid Collyer parents, too, seem overfurnished: the “prominent women’s doctor” sporting “a brush mustache and pince-nez”; his wife’s “ample figure girdled in the style of that day, with her abundant hair swept up and pinned cornucopically.” From their annual foraging trips abroad—aboard the Mauretania, Homer remembers, or was it perhaps the Neuresthania?—more treasures arrive to take up residence in the stuffy house: “a marble water fountain, or busts of Romans with no noses or missing ears, or antique armoires with their fecal smell.”

With its gloomy expanse of haunted houses, the dead mingling promiscuously with the living and the inanimate with the animate, American literature can sometimes seem best suited for Halloween. After the Spanish flu, “like some great predatory bird,” has plucked the Collyer parents from their “aspiring warehouse,” the Collyer mansion does bear a family resemblance to Usher’s doomed abode and the House of the Seven Gables. “Cluttered it might have seemed to outsiders,” Homer observes, “but it seemed normal and right to us and it was our legacy, Langley’s and mine, this sense of living with things assertively inanimate, and having to walk around them.”

Ostensibly a historical novel, bearing the customary and somewhat ambiguous warning that “apart from the actual people, events, and locales that figure in the narrative, all names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously,” Homer & Langley is energetically untethered from the documentary record, which happens to be quite extensive. There was much curiosity about the rich and reclusive Collyer brothers when they were alive, and even more after they died, in 1947, Langley apparently a victim of one of his own booby traps, and Homer, blind and deprived of his brother’s care, of starvation. Their bodies, not easy to locate amid the accumulated tons of detritus—tunnels of newspapers baled like hay, thousands of books, a Model T Ford, human organs pickled in jars of formaldehyde, a dozen pianos, a clavichord, dressmaking dummies, sewing machines, baby carriages—were removed from the house and buried, alongside their parents, at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. Novels and plays (one titled Clutter: The True Story of the Collyer Brothers Who Never Threw Anything Out) have been written about the brothers, screenplays floated, a Japanese…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.