Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
Random House, Trade Paper, 2009
2009 National Book Award Winner
In August 1974, Frenchman Philippe Petit walked, danced, jumped up, and laid down on a tightrope strung between the top floors of the World Trade Center. In a city where bizarre is the norm and rarely noticed, Petit’s hour-long stunt enthralled the hundreds of onlookers 110 stories below him. Emotions ran high: some wanted him to fall, others chewed their fingernails with worry, while the majority cheered for him when he finally walked into the unfinished South Tower and the waiting arms of the frustrated police.
With this true event as the backdrop, McCann turns his focus on the stories of fictional characters. He immerses us in the lives of an itinerant Irish monk who works with street people; two Bronx prostitutes; a young artist couple; a criminal court judge; a grief group of five women who lost sons in Vietnam; a Guatemalan murse; and the Irishman's brother.
What is special about these people? Nothing. And that is part of McCann’s genius. He tells the stories of real-life people living life in episodic chapters, gradually weaving a pattern of connections that all hinge on Philippe Petit.
During the first half of the book, McCann uses third-person narration; the reader learns about the characters through description and dialog. His real genius, however, comes through in the second half when he switches to point of view. Suddenly the characters are talking to us, revealing their emotions, their self-doubts, their regrets—and none of it is very pretty. There is tragedy and sadness in abundance, but the book manages to end on a hopeful note.
I have read several reviews of this book, and I think they all give away too much about its ending and its “meaning.” I won’t do that, preferring that you experience the book the same way I did—without preconceived notions or downright gasbaggery.
What I found most amazing about McCann was his ability to believably assume the voice of a Black hooker (Tillie), a Park Avenue matron who mourns her son (Claire), and a city judge who’s lost his idealism for expediency (Solomon)— all with equal aplomb.
I loved this book, and if I came away with anything from it, it is this: we all live on a tightrope.