Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Doctorow in the House

During a radio interview the other day, Leonard Lopate described the Collyer brothers as “upper crust packrats” and E.L Doctorow quickly interjected, as he did not like this description. His whole purpose for writing “Homer and Langley” was to breathe new life into the Collyer’s story. Whereas so many of their past accounts have gone into excruciating detail over their death, Doctorow celebrates their life, has elevated their status into the mythic realm. What struck him as horrific were the police reports from the 40s, how they hacked their way into the townhouse. Such vilification needed a human touch. Doctorow has always taken his well-earned poetic license along with him into his historical fiction forays and many critics are calling this one of his masterpieces.

I had the good fortune of watching him read the other night at Book Court, in Brooklyn Heights. Doctorow stood at the podium like a poet from a bygone era, delivering a lodestar of a eulogy. He bore a certain resemblance to Craig Lesley as he read. He started by saying that Brooklyn was a great place to give a reading with its rich tradition of scribes. “The Bronx,” Doctorow said, “Only has three of us writers that I know of: Dom Delillo, Richard Price, and me.”

He has a pleasant cantankerous quality about him like the know-it-all uncle waiting to share his treasure trove of knowledge if you are patient enough to bear with his circumspect delivery. He admitted that the end of the book crept up on him one day. He looked it over, hmmed to himself, and declared the story wouldn’t run any further. He got up from his desk, went over to the bar, poured himself a stiff drink, and celebrated.

When asked if he had done any research on the Collyer brothers he admitted to checking out a few pictures, but he didn’t want to pollute his head with facts and so opted for the mythic route. The opening line came to him, seemingly from out of nowhere, “I’m Homer the blind brother.” In the Lopate interview, the radio wonk was quick to point out to Doctorow how Homeric the sentence is and yet Doctorow didn’t even realize until he was halfway into the book. Great writers tend to bring the enterprise of literature into their own writerly junkets. The trick is to artistically pilfer so that your style shines through it.

In the past, he has also been chastised for stretching the boundaries of history to suit the needs of his narrative. But, let me just make this point clear, he is a fiction writer.

Hollywood has no problem demolishing the foundation of his stories to suit their needs. Ah, but that’s not the same as delving into history fiction. There needs to be some degree of verisimilitude. Sure but, what Doctorow is doing is taking an almost fabulist strand and running with it. Once upon a time, Dickens’ novels told a greater truth of the old England than the history books of its time and what about “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”. Am I creating a fallacy of slippery slope? Maybe. I just get tired of hearing idiotic gripes when the total effect of the work— its literary gestalt— should be the chief nugget of artistic evaluation. The words my friend, look to the words.

I am going to trust the scribe who depicts his reclusive anti-hero with “Lisztian hair” and can come up with a novel way for driving a Ford Model T into the living room. Leave the biographical notes for the academic journal.

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