The Taste of Peapods

Matthew Reynolds

  • Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow
    Little, Brown, 224 pp, £11.99, January 2010, ISBN 978 1 4087 0215 4

The American historical novelist E.L. Doctorow has spoken of the adventure of his process of composition, of the excitement of not knowing where he is going to end up. For a reader, too, the feeling of being searchingly led forward is one of the pleasures offered by his fiction. But another impression it gives is that the environment being explored comes ready structured. In the work of Dos Passos, historical circumstances tend to stifle human potential; in DeLillo they tend to gasify into all-permeating media representations; but in Doctorow they create a network of defining possibilities along which characters can advance.

Of course (in Billy Bathgate) a bright-eyed boy juggling on street corners in the Bronx in the 1930s is going to be noticed by the passing gangster boss Dutch Schultz and get drawn into his orbit; of course (in The Book of Daniel) the son of a Communist couple sent to the electric chair for espionage – like the Rosenbergs in 1953 – will grow up troubled and sadistic, have an ambivalent relationship to the New Left, and struggle to assert his parents’ innocence. The trajectories of historical figures can – correspondingly – be altered to follow not what actually happened, but what ought to have done. Surely (in Ragtime) John Pierpont Morgan might have invited Henry Ford to lunch to talk about reincarnation; and why wouldn’t the anarchist Emma Goldman have given a full-body massage to the society divorcée Evelyn Nesbit (accompanied by a lecture on sexual politics)?

These lines of life have a strange affinity with the routes taken by means of mechanised transport. In Loon Lake, a runaway is woken by a passing train and sets off doggedly in pursuit. In World’s Fair, a youngster hurries along in the track of the Hindenburg as it passes whisperingly overhead. In Billy Bathgate, that bright-eyed, juggling boy soon finds himself in the Boss’s Packard, being chauffeured in a way that shows the difference ‘between driving a car and running it with the authority of a professional’. In The Book of Daniel, the son of the Communists obeys the dictates of his trauma by conducting a miniature, mobile electrocution of his own, burning his Volvo’s electric lighter into his wife’s buttocks as they drive along the Massachusetts Turnpike, in convoy with his adoptive parents, in the rain.

Ragtime (1975), Doctorow’s most enjoyable, most successful and still best book, is also the one in which most miles are covered in most machines at highest speed. There is the black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout in which Harry Houdini makes his first appearance, and the ‘new Voisin biplane’ in which he attracts the notice of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (who travels by Daimler). There is the ‘electric hansom’ in which Evelyn Nesbit cruises the Lower East Side, a trajectory which leads to that exciting encounter with Emma Goldman. There is the Model T Ford with the ‘custom pantasote roof’ that belongs to the black pianist Coalhouse Walker; its racially motivated violation by firemen points inexorably towards a violent conclusion. There is the elevated railway, known for short by Doctorow’s own initials as the ‘El’, and there are also ‘long-distance locomotive railroads and interurban electric railroads and street railways’: ‘Tracks! Tracks! … all laying their steel stripes on the land, criss-crossing like the texture of an indefatigable civilisation.’

When Tateh, a poor immigrant, flees New York with his little daughter, they go by streetcar because back then ‘one could travel great distances on hard rush seats or wooden benches by taking each line to its terminus and transferring to the next.’ The father and child reach Lawrence, Massachusetts, which feels like the end of the line: ‘Tateh stood in front of a loom for 56 hours a week.’ But the violent strike of 1912 gets them back on the rails, this time to Philadelphia, where (after some wandering) they halt in front of the shop window of the Franklin Novelty Company. Here, Tateh sees the possibility of a different kind of departure, for he has just discovered for himself the principle of flick-book animation (flick books had in fact been around since the mid-19th century). The Franklin Novelty Company will publish his books ‘and add them to its line’. He turns out to have boarded an express train to early Hollywood: ‘thus’ – we are told – ‘did the artist point his life along the lines of flow of American energy.’

In conversations about his work, ‘technical’ is one of Doctorow’s favourite words. He has a mechanic’s delight in trying out different configurations of the novel form: his books range from apparently confessional memoir, through mixtures of first and third-person narrative, stiffened with essayistic digressions, to multiplicitous collages of different kinds of writing, including verse. Ragtime, he has said, was in part a ‘technical exercise’ done to see if he could create a narrative as ‘relentless’ as those he admired in Heinrich von Kleist, sacrificing ‘psychological complexity’ in order to wield ‘that really marvellous tool for a novelist, the sense of forward motion’. Once the narrative is underway, he drives it with all the imperturbable authority of Dutch Schultz’s chauffeur. The voice of the book is a non-stop chatter of idées reçues:

Women were stouter then. They visited the fleet carrying white parasols. Everyone wore white in summer. Tennis racquets were hefty and the racquet faces elliptical. There was a lot of sexual fainting. There were no Negroes. There were no immigrants. On Sunday afternoon after dinner, Father and Mother went upstairs and closed the bedroom door.

Events crowd in and the narrative swivels unembarrassedly to accommodate them: ‘Apparently there were Negroes. There were immigrants.’ It is all delightfully quick and smooth. It is the world as seen by the El moving overhead.

Great cruelties are passed over with the same blank face; but the book’s startling achievement is that, by means of all but imperceptible pauses and emphases, it allows us to realise what is being ignored, so that we can both relish and revolt against the ticker-tape insouciance of chronology, which always has somewhere better to go on to. We can remember Tateh’s wife, who allowed herself to be fucked by her employer so her family could eat, and who then disappears utterly from the story save for two fleeting remarks, one which tells us that Tateh has cast her off, and another, much later, which notes that before making an establishment second alliance he has ascertained that she is dead.

This refusal to express feeling, which Ragtime exaggerates to dramatic effect, is a Doctorow trait. When the Hindenberg crashes, the little boy who had chased after it ‘did not think of the dead people … All I could think of was that the ship had fallen out of the sky.’ When Billy Bathgate feels complete love, he speaks in the lockjaw idiom of the gangster he is growing to be: ‘Mrs Preston. I’m so nuts about you I can’t see straight.’ Even Doctorow’s most tortured character, the narrator of The Book of Daniel, shares, at his sister’s burial, the distanced mood of the watching gravediggers, who ‘will never lose their curiosity for the varieties of grief’. Each of these instances is plausible and compelling; but together they suggest the bias of all Doctorow’s writing. Daniel submits his book ‘for the Doctoral Degree in Social Biology, Gross Entomology, Women’s Anatomy’ and much else; and Doctorow himself writes as though he were a doctor of something, not so much because of any display of information, though the books are full of knowledge, but because they have the coolness and ambition of the perfectly skilled. In each of his books he has challenged himself to imagine a formative cultural moment from the Civil War to the present. His body of work is on its way to becoming a fictional encyclopedia of American history.

Doctorow’s new novel shares several elements with Ragtime. There is a black jazz musician, a Model T Ford and a narrative done more in the manner of a chronicle than of a story. But in pace, tone and setting, Homer and Langley is the opposite of the chilly, energetic earlier book, and a departure from the bulk of Doctorow’s earlier work (Lives of the Poets, a comparatively unachieved, fragmentary work from 1984, is its nearest precursor). It takes place almost entirely in a domestic interior. The Model T stays half-dismantled in the dining-room, and the book’s other significant machines are no less static: a player piano and several typewriters, one with braille keys. Though a great deal of time is covered, the narrative feels leisurely. Its fictional creator is a person who goes first blind, then deaf, and ends up unable to move.

Homer and Langley reimagines the lives of the Collyer brothers, reclusive New York hoarders who started to make the news in the late 1930s for non-payment of bills. Much of the clutter that filled their brownstone mansion finds its place in Doctorow’s book: the Model T, of course, plus guns, 14 pianos, human organs pickled in jars, the frame of a baby carriage, and many many newspapers, piled so that the rooms were reduced to cubby-holes with narrow passages between them. Other facts are adjusted. Doctorow keeps the brothers’ names but redistributes their accomplishments: it becomes Homer, not Langley, who is the brilliant pianist, and he is made to lose his sight in his teens rather than middle age. The lives of both brothers are prolonged into the 1980s (the real Collyers died in 1947), but the circumstances of their death are honoured: Langley crushed by the collapse of one of the house’s tunnels and the dependent Homer then dying of starvation. Their address remains on Fifth Avenue but is moved south from 128th Street to somewhere that has a view of Central Park. And Doctorow gifts the pair with a succession of house guests, representative visitors from the American century that was going on outside.

The ménage starts off familial: a few servants, plus Mary Elizabeth Riordan, a talented and lovely piano student from ‘an immigrant family that had suffered major misfortune’. She leaves for the Sisters of Mercy Junior College and Langley marries a lady of good family called Lila van Dijk, who ‘had a mind to change everything’. But she is soon driven out when the cook’s grandson, a cornet player called Harold Robileaux, turns up and starts rehearsing with his band in the house. Once he has left, new visitors continue to draw out the brothers’ liberal attitudes. During the 1930s, Langley has the idea (he is always the one who has the ideas) that they should give tea dances so as ‘to present a dignified social experience for people living hand to mouth’. The gatherings become troublingly popular and are stopped by the police, an event which ‘marked the beginning of our abandonment of the outer world’.

But the world will not allow them to abandon it. A mobster, Vincent, takes refuge with them for a few days, together with his cronies, in the aftermath of a shooting, ‘bleeding from what remained of his ear’. Their final group visitation is from people who are neither invited nor not invited: hippies who latch on to the brothers when they go into the park to ‘have a look’ at an antiwar rally. With their long hair, and their clothes ‘casual to the point of dereliction’, the brothers find, to their quiet pleasure, that they fit in: ‘we’d been recognised, is how I felt.’ There is recognition also, as well as perhaps some latent self-congratulation, in Homer’s admiration of the hippies: ‘living as they did, these kids were more radical critics of society than the antiwar or civil rights people getting so much attention in the newspapers … They had simply rejected the entire culture.’

This Indian summer gone by, the brothers start to be bothered by the guardians of respectability: a fire inspector, reporters, gangs of kids who throw stones at the shutters, and ‘an actual banker – accompanied by a city marshal’, who comes in pursuit of the mortgage. Their world darkens, quietens and narrows further as Langley, to keep intruders out, blocks the hall with boxes of books piled to the ceiling and booby-traps the other rooms. Water and electricity are cut off. Homer has for a while been losing his hearing and is by now completely deaf as well as blind, a sealed interior within a sealed interior. His brother communicates with him by touching his fingers to the nubbed keys of his braille typewriter. He is kept company by the image of the last person he met, Jacqueline Roux, a sympathetic French journalist of an anthropological cast who is touring America in order to ‘get this country … to write about what cannot be seen’. She saved his life when he tried to cross the road to Central Park, then chatted to him warmly, then disappeared. He cultivates the memory of her as his muse: no longer able to play the piano, he too writes about all that he has experienced but not seen.

Homer’s voice is brilliantly conjured into being. Here, for instance, is the raid on the tea dance:

How many police there were I don’t know. They were loud and bulked up the air. The front door was open and a chill wind blew in off the avenue. I didn’t know what to do. The shrieks I heard could have been merriment. With so many bodies in the room, I had the wild idea that the police in all their bulk were dancing with one another. But our poor tea dancers were being driven out the door like cattle. Grandmamma Robileaux had been standing near me with her salver of cookies. I heard a resounding gong, the sound made by a silver salver coming down on a skull. A male yowl and then a rain of cookies, like hail, splattering the floor.

This switching back and forth between the blind man’s physical powerlessness and the surging of his imagination feels right, as does the way his clichés are refreshed by the fact that they are describing something heard. ‘Like cattle’ becomes interesting when you think of the noise of it, slow, heavy, resistant; and only in a realm of sound does it make sense for ‘a rain of cookies’ to fall ‘like hail’.

Other facets of his personality are carefully built up. He is forbearing towards his well-meaning, irritating elder brother, with his unstoppable acquisitiveness and transient schemes, such as his endeavour to restore Homer’s sight with breakfasts of Mongolian ground nuts and a programme of ‘tactile art appreciation’. He has a longing for physical tenderness, which spills out when a loopy, kind young hippy comes to share his bed: ‘Shhh, Homer, she said. Shhh. And when she whispered my name, God help me, the love broke over me like the hot tears of a soul that has found salvation.’ And he has a persistent reluctance to judge anyone, including himself. In Homer, powerlessness and open-mindedness are provocatively intertwined.

For instance, in the early days, when their servants were still with them, he was sleeping with the housemaid, Julia. Langley brings to dinner a respectable young woman who is shocked when Julia, having served the roast, sits down to join them. ‘Miss Perdita Spence’s peroration’ – Homer remembers mildly – ‘was actually quite interesting’: she calls him a ‘pasha’ and an ‘abuser’, someone who is not content ‘to exercise his power’ but ‘must also put it on display’; ‘a woman is not a pet monkey, said Miss Spence.’ Langley takes his guest home and Homer is left to reflect: Julia had appeared in his bed uninvited; but only after he had asked to touch her face – as is his wont – in order to form an idea of what she looked like. Prompted, by the taste of peapods, to remember his dead mother, he reaches for Julia’s hand, only to find his mother’s diamond ring on her finger. ‘We had a trial, naturally,’ he says; after which Julia is required to leave. But there has been no verdict, and Homer feels himself to be no less at fault than she was. He leaves the imbroglio be and wanders on.

Through Homer’s recollections of the century that has marginally impinged on him, Doctorow revisits the volumes of his own historico-fictional chronicle. In addition to the echoes of Ragtime, the hippies come from the world of The Book of Daniel; and the gangster Vincent, and the irritating fire inspector, from that of Billy Bathgate. There is satisfaction in this elegiac review of his career, but also some self-criticism. Homer’ sightless endeavour, to feel his way into a gentle vision of things, is lined up in contrast to a typically vigorous enterprise of Langley’s, invented by Doctorow to account for the labyrinth of newspapers found in the Collyer mansion. Langley wants to create ‘the only newspaper anyone would ever need’, one that would consist entirely of ‘kinds of events that were, by their frequency, seminal human behaviour’ and would therefore ‘fix American life finally in one edition’. Homer thinks it all ‘a crazy foolish hand-rubbing scheme’.

Homer, as his name announces, is one figure of the writer; and Langley is another. It was Ezra Pound who said, ‘Literature is news that STAYS news,’ but Doctorow too has something of the Langley about him, with the encyclopedic drive of his imagination, his life’s-work anthology of representative moments of American civilisation. And in fact he once confessed to a fantasy just like Langley’s: the New York Times should be ‘written in its entirety by me, on just one day. I would spend many, many years preparing that particular city edition.’

Yet the vigorous multitudinousness of Doctorow’s earlier novels has always been tempered by other virtues: a tender ear for voices, and great vividness in the composition of vignettes. Adopting the character of Homer allows him to bring these qualities to the fore: to write more poetically, relying on tone and rhythm, and taking history as a series of images to be contemplated rather than scenarios with which to become involved. The result is a book more moving, and more haunting, than anything he has done before. The outside world brings pain – Harold Robileaux is killed in North Africa in the Second World War; Mary Elizabeth Riordan is raped and murdered three decades later in ‘a remote Central American village’ – but it also supplies material for the scenes Homer visualises. Untrammelled by the doctoral tendencies of the earlier books, these tableaux linger in the imagination: the Model T in the dining-room; the gangster Vincent cowering in the pantry, scared half to death by the rat-a-tat of Langley’s typing upstairs; and the hippies, during a city-wide blackout (this must be 1977), stranded in the sclerotised mansion, until Homer comes to lead them in a conga line through the ‘labyrinth of hazardous pathways, full of obstructions and many dead ends’ to the door where he feels a kiss on his cheek, and then: ‘I heard their laughter as they fled across the street and into the park, all of them, including my brother, though he would come back, but the others, never, their laughter diminishing through the trees, for that was the last of them, they were gone.’