WITH Bellow, Vonnegut, Mailer, and Updike all recently departed, Philip Roth is now supposed to be the last living giant of American literature. Roth’s late productivity has become an ongoing wonder of the publishing world, his sustained priapic raging a rebuke to every author and pensioner who has ever gone quietly into decline. At 76, he continues to cast the indignities of old age into one livid fiction after another, as if writing could dispel them, although some have noted that each of these senescent novels has been slighter and weaker than the one before.
Fewer critics tend to remark on the no less brilliant dotage of E.L. Doctorow, a New Yorker two years older than Roth, whose work rate is a little slower, but whose new book, Homer And Langley, is a great deal stronger than that of his more widely-read contemporary from New Jersey. Impertinent as it may seem to pit these two venerable American masters against each other, I’ve been wondering which of them would win in a fight.
Born on opposite sides of the river in the early 1930s, both of these middle-class Jewish boys grew up admiring their tougher peers in an era of boxing melodramas and superhero comics – a time and place to which they have frequently returned in their own different ways. Doctorow goes back there again with Homer And Langley, taking his title from the eponymous Collyer brothers, two wealthy, elderly recluses who were found dead in their Manhattan mansion in 1947. Homer was blind and later paralysed by disease, Langley a profound misanthrope who returned from the first world war to start building a mad hermetic kingdom from mountains of newspapers, furniture, ornaments, appliances, and random urban junk.
Eventually, he set off a booby-trap of his own devising, and was crushed by an indoor landslide. Homer, without Langley to feed him, starved in his bed. It took municipal workers almost a month to clear out 180 tonnes of monumental clutter, which included 14 pianos and a disassembled Model T automobile, and the brothers became the most notorious pack-rats of an increasingly material world – an urban folk tale to frighten untidy children.
But Doctorow, who was 16 when they died, now remembers or imagines them as “curators of their times” and their family home as “a kind of museum of American civilisation”. It suits his mythic interpretation of their story to extend the Collyers’ span by several decades, from the 1900s to the 1970s, and to make Homer his narrator – recounting the 20th century as heard by a blind man who spends most of it shut inside a brownstone on Fifth Avenue.
Except for a few seasonal excursions across the street to Central Park, and a brief spell of visiting speakeasies through the Prohibition years, Doctorow’s sedentary hero sits at his piano, and later, at his Braille typewriter, and lets history come to him. Immigrant servants, negro jazz trumpeters, and refugees from the Holocaust all bring news of change and calamity, while the brothers play host to sad crowds of tea-dancers during the Depression, gangsters on the lam in the 1950s, and finally a group of young hippies who recognise these two old boys as genuine, lifelong drop-outs. It was, writes Homer, “as if our house were not our house but a road on which Langley and I were travelling like pilgrims”. His older brother, meanwhile, expresses his “bitterness of life” in terms that float out their windows and across the cosmos.
“If every question is answered,” asks Langley, “so that we know everything there is to know about the universe, what then? What will be different? It will be like knowing how a combustion engine works. That’s all. The darkness will be there still.” Thus does E.L. Doctorow put his words in the mouths of people who can no longer speak for themselves.
The Collyers are not the first historical personages with whom he has taken fictional liberties, and certainly not the most famous. He wrote his 1960 debut novel, Welcome To Hard Times, in reaction to his earlier job as a script-reader for a movie studio. Deciding that he could “lie better” about the past than all those stock Westerns, Doctorow apparently intended that book to be a pastiche of the genre, but it resolved itself into a solemn and poetic meditation on the betrayal and disfigurement of America’s original promise.
This has been his running theme ever since, although he did lighten up. His bestseller Ragtime, from 1975, remains the most irreverent historical novel ever published in a country that takes its history very seriously, using the leading lights of modernity – Houdini, Freud, JP Morgan, the feminist, socialist radical Emma Goldman – to illustrate Doctorow’s points about the high human cost of US cultural and industrial energy. To some, this was unforgivably cheeky.
The late John Updike wrote admiringly of Doctorow’s prose, but not of his tendency to “play with helpless dead puppets”. Not long before he died, Updike also wrote of the peculiar form often demonstrated by aging novelists – the “translucent thinness” of what he called “the senile sublime”. Homer And Langley seems to me a finer example of this than Updike’s own last few novels, or Philip Roth’s latest, The Humbling, which reads and sounds more like a loud and powerful voice finally giving out. His every thought and every book is now about the grave. He’s talking to himself, and repeating himself. Doctorow’s voice has never been quite so distinctive or singular, in part because he throws it every time.
Perhaps the most democratic author of his generation, he has always deferred to the people who populate his stories, letting them dictate his style. There is an honourable leftist principle behind this approach, by which the official record is rewritten to subvert the social order. He shows no special respect for major, real-world figures, but boundless empathy for the minor invented characters trailing in their wake – street kids, soldiers, workers, drifters. His sense of engagement is inexhaustible. “The historian will tell you what happened,” as Doctorow has said.
“The novelist will tell you what it felt like.” In this book, which could only have been written by an old man, he describes the consequences for two odd souls who refuse to take part in progress, their power and water cut off by the angry city from which they have withdrawn, eventually leaving Homer to write his last words blind, deaf, alone, and mostly immobile in a house that has become a tomb. “The world has shuttered slowly closed,” he narrates, in a final shift to the present tense, “intending to leave me only my consciousness.”
But he still writes almost musically, inspired by Schubert impromptus, Chopin etudes, and Mozart sonatas to sound out his words for beauty and clarity. In the apparent absence of God, he comes to share a secular faith in writing itself that Doctorow once expressed as “the belief that there is salvation in witness”. In trying to remember his parents, both killed within hours by the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, he provides a kind of eulogy for all those whom Doctorow has spent his life’s work trying to imagine. He’ll be joining them soon, and so will we.
“They are fixed in their own time, which has rolled down behind the planetary horizon. They and their times and all its concerns have gone down together.”
TRUE LIES: FIVE OF E.L. DOCTOROW’S GREATEST HISTORICAL NOVELS
The Book Of Daniel (1969) Named after a volume in both the Hebrew and Christian bibles, Doctorow’s breakthrough novel reopened the notorious Rosenberg case, retelling and reworking the (mostly) true story of a married Jewish-American couple executed for selling nuclear secrets at the height of the Cold War.
Ragtime (1975) Generally considered Doctorow’s masterpiece, this semi-imagined document of America at the turn of the 20th century sees Harry Houdini flying over the head of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in a biplane, and Sigmund Freud fainting into Carl Jung’s arms on their first trip to the USA. President Barack Obama has since claimed that Ragtime is one of his favourite books.
The Waterworks (1994) A Victorian mystery story in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe, after whom Doctorow was named (“E.L.” stands for Edgar Laurence) and whom he has since described as “America’s greatest bad writer”, this thrilling genre exercise also stands as a phantasmagorical vision of mid-19th century New York, as run by the legendarily corrupt “Boss” William Macy Tweed.
Billy Bathgate (1989) Always drawn to make high art out of pulp materials, Doctorow wrote his own version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn by placing a fictional streetwise teen in the company of real-life mobster and bootlegger Dutch Schultz (played in the film version by Dustin Hoffman).
The March (2006) This loose, rambling, enthralling account of the American Civil War pays as much narrative attention to lowest ranks of society – freed slaves, dispossessed whites, army deserters, all invented by Doctorow – as the decision-makers. President Abraham Lincoln makes a vivid and haunting appearance half way through.