The Collyer brothers were real. Doctorow has brilliantly told a fictionalized account of their lives. Both brothers were disabled. Homer became blind in his teens and Langley was war wounded from exposure to mustard gas in World War I. He was also surely emotionally damaged, perhaps from the war, and mentally unstable. His preferred state of isolation from the world took his blind brother, Homer, with him. They had few outside relationships and at the end of their lives, none at all, although Homer imagines a relationship with Jacqueline, after a brief meeting in Central Park, which takes him into his final days.
Coming from a background filled with the silver spoons of wealth, the brothers slowly descend into a world of eccentricity and reclusiveness. Shuttered inside their once beautiful home, they decline with the house as it rots around them, filled with the detritus of Langley’s obsession with newspapers and other objects he collects, like a model “t”, which inhabits the dining room.
The story is told through the “blind eyes” of Homer’s memories, and he is a wonderful narrator, interjecting just the right amount of wit, tension and emotion. His inner vision is clear and sharp.
After the unexpected death of their parents from disease, Homer and Langley were too young and ill prepared to handle the responsibilities facing them. They were not trained to handle the decisions of adulthood or the management of a home as large as theirs. Homer’s memories take us through the history of the 20th century, as they would have lived it, in Doctorow's imagination. The author has given the brothers a longer life than they had in real life, and thus we are given a bird’s eye view of most of the momentous occurrences during that time. We experience silent movies, the prohibition and the lives of some hoodlums, the depression, squatters and flower children, the birth of rock and roll, blackouts, moon landings, assassinations, and so many other beginnings and ends of several monumental events in a century of change.
The brothers were strange, to say the least. Although they shut out the world and preferred only each other (Homer may have not had a choice, given his physical condition), they managed to exist without most creature comforts as their interaction with the world diminished completely. Dunning notices came from everywhere, since they paid bills without rhyme or reason. As water, gas, electricity, phone were shut off, still they did not succumb to the constraints of normal existence, of normal society and defiantly held forth, somehow surviving the outrages life presented to them.
Living in a decaying mansion, they were surrounded by the detritus of their existence, piled floor to ceiling: boxes, papers, memorabilia, which eventually created an almost unnavigable obstacle course and an environment which was a health hazard. Homer seemed to have his moments when he realizes that his life may not be the way he wants to live it, but for the most part, he is helpless to change it, and he supports his brothers strange lifestyle, wondering at odd moments if Langley is perhaps insane; they are “partners in crime”. He is mostly a happy participant in this aberrational living condition. They seem to be enough for each other and need no one else, except for the occasional servant, early on. Langley is Homer’s caretaker and care for him he does. If Homer was not blind, if he could see the surroundings he was in, he might not have been such a willing participant, since he seemed the saner of the two.
In the end, Homer is alone and we realize how shut off and isolated he truly is as he loses all of his important senses, and wishes for madness so as not to bear witness to all he has lost and missed.