Before my dad lost first his sight and then his mind to the ravages of age, he was a great reader. Though an aeronautical engineer who graduated with honors in math and physics from MIT, he read history and fiction, relying on audio books when blindness overcame him. Now, even they cannot hold him. He dwells in his own nightmarish world, seeing things we cannot see.
I write of him today, because I am reading E. L. Doctorow’s newest novel, Homer & Langley based loosely on the true story of the Collyer brothers of the same names. My dad loved Doctorow and convinced me to read Ragtime, which he thought was one of the great books of all time. I read it reluctantly; annoyed that Doctorow used real historical figures as characters and took great license with their lives. Why not make something up entirely? I protested. Why not write real history? But my dad, the scientist, grounded in facts (he forbade gossip at the dinner table), a man deeply interested in history (one of his other all time favorite books was Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror), could not understand my objections. He thought Ragtime was brilliant. And so, years later, I realized that it was.
I love history too, and do want to know the facts about the Collyers, but I eagerly picked up Homer & Langley and was immediately drawn into the brothers’ cluttered, complicated and sequestered lives as imagined by Doctorow. I am struck by the twin themes of madness and blindness and want very much to talk to my father about these things. It is also a book about history, like Doctorow’s other novels, told with made-up details about real people, but, also like his other works, fiercely honed by the truth. Doctorow, only five years younger than my dad, has succeeded beautifully with this, his latest book. I hope he gets to write one or two more. Posted by Suzy.