Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Randon House, New York, 2009
Borrowed from the library.
August 7, 1974, was a day that dawned cloudy in New York City. By the end of the day the great city was changed. Philippe Petit, a French street performer, had walked a 210 foot wire strung between the yet unfinished 110 story towers of the World Trade Center. Let the Great World Spin follows the lives of people in the city on that day. The novel does not revolve around Petit’s actions but is held together by the sense of his being there, somewhere, over everyone’s heads. The sense that he could fall.
There is Corrigan, a radical Irish cleric trying to help the prostitutes in the middle of the burning tenements of the Bronx. His brother, Ciaran, who has come to the city to see what holds him. Tillie and Jazzlyn, mother and daughter hookers living on the streets. A group of very different mothers who gather to mourn their sons lost in Vietnam. Love and grief run through each story, and McCann paints the city vividly in prose.
Gangs of kids hung out on street corners . Traffic lights were stuck on permanant red. At fire hydrants there were huge puddles of stagnant water. A building on Willis had half collapsed into the street. A couple of wild dogs picked their way through the ruin. A burned neon sign stood upright. Fire truck went by and a couple of cop cars trailed each other for comfort. Every now and then a figure emerged from the shadows, homeless men pushing shopping trolleys piled high with copper wire. They looked like men on a westward-ho, shoving their wagons across the nightlands of America. From Page 48.
New York felt like that in the seventies, I spent some time there. McCann places Petit’s walk at the center of the novel and the stories of his characters on either side. Then there is that other day, the day the towers fell, and what that meant to New York and to the country as a whole. That gaping hole in the center, the thing that we miss.
McCann is a magician with language and I enjoyed the novel just for that, but it felt too jumbled up. I don’t know, maybe this chaos was completely intentional and I missed something. I found some characters more true then others, some parts fit, others felt like bits of a jigsaw puzzle crammed where they didn’t belong. It made me sad. I wanted to love all of it and I just didn’t.