In the summer of 1974, New York City was dirty and hot. I visited it a few times as a teen and saw prostitutes and graffiti for the first time. Sirens screamed all night and all day. Cops were everywhere. Yellow cabs dominated the traffic, car horns blared, brakes squealed. In his novel Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann recreates the city at that time from the voices of about a dozen different characters.
In early August, 1974, Philippe Petit and his friends sneaked into the World Trade Center with a ton of equipment and strung a cable between the two towers. Hesitantly at first, but soon with great confidence and perhaps with some arrogance, Petit walked out onto the wire, high above the city. McCann’s story is not about Petit, but about those on the ground, some of whom witnessed Petit, most of whom did not get to see him first hand.
John Corrigan, originally from Ireland, is assigned by his religious order to serve the gritty projects of the Bronx. He works as a driver at an old folks’ home and he befriends some of the prostitutes in his neighborhood, letting them come into his apartment whenever they need to use his toilet. Two of these prostitutes, Tillie and Jazzlyn, a mother and her heroin-addicted daughter, work the streets in Corrigan’s neighborhood. Jazzlyn has children herself, two baby daughters. Across the city, on the upper East Side of Manhattan, in a Park Avenue penthouse, a mother grieves for her son who was killed in Vietnam. She meets with other grieving mothers who have also lost their sons in that war. An artsy couple who had retreated to upstate New York make their awkward re-appearance in the City and find that they have been forgotten. They backslide into drugs to soothe their wounded pride.
Meanwhile Petit walks on a wire, high above the city. Early computer programmers working on the ARPANET in California hack the phone lines to reach a payphone near the World Trade Center to find out what’s happening. A judge has a drink or two at lunch and talks to the bartender about the high-wire walker, imagines the charges against him, says the young man might be arraigned in his court. Another young man photographs new graffiti tags that have been painted in places dangerous to get to, a kind of temporary art similar to the wire walker’s art but on a different scale.
Lives converge when an accident occurs the day of the wire walk.
As with any great novel, Let the Great World Spin can be read on many different levels. It can be read simply for the story itself. It can be read for the multiple story lines of love: love between a man and a woman, love between brothers, love among grieving mothers in a support group, the love of a mother for her children or between a grandmother and her grandchildren, the love a religious worker has for his fellow human beings, the love a wirewalker has for his dream. It can be read as a magnificent depiction of New York City in a particular moment in history.
The novel can also be read as an incredibly rich literary work. I listened to the audiobook version of it twice. The first time I just wanted to know what happened to the characters, and the novel succeeded as a story. The second time I listened, I knew what would happen. I heard so much more in the language and the structure of the novel that I realized I could probably read it many more times and find more and more connections and symbols each time I read it. It’s been called a “post 9/11” novel by some critics, though at first it doesn’t seem to be. Only a small part of it takes place after the towers have fallen. But the symbolism is strong of Petit sneaking in the building and walking high above the city, realizing a dream that in no way could happen today with security as tight as it has become. Readers who like literary puzzles slowly fitting together, where seemingly unconnected characters ultimately interact with each other and influence each other’s lives, will enjoy this book. It won the National Book Award for 2009 and clearly deserved the praise.
Check the WRL catalog for Let the Great World Spin
Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook version