Oh, my. Let the Great World Spin has good buzz right now among people who tell me about books. It was recommended several times, identified as “that book about the tight rope walker at the World Trade Center.” Which is sort of like calling Oliver Twist “that book about the pickpocket,” but never mind. Philippe Petit is in it. And it’s important to have a convenient hook for a book like this because in the end, it’s about, well everything. Or everything important: Time. Memory. Music. Death. Religion. Risk. Sex. War. Love. Life, in fact. Honestly, there is little Colum McCann leaves out.
I don’t know how he does it. It’s not a terribly long book, just 400 pages. There are a lot of characters, but none with whom you spend an enormous amount of time. It’s just that the episodes McCann chooses to relate are wisely chosen and artfully written so that in the end, once you permit yourself to trust him, you will be immensely moved.
And what is it that we are trusting, exactly? That the author will deal fairly with us and with the characters. His prostitutes, plying their trade beneath the Major Deegan Expressway, are not there to titillate. The support group of mothers who have lost sons in Vietnam are not chronological window-dressing. John Thomas Corrigan, almost-monk, struggles personally with his relationship to God, and while his brother, the narrator of this section, doesn’t share Corrigan’s faith, he respects it, and forces us to. Most of all, we have to trust that McCann is going to bring all of these stories together, which is probably the most difficult business in the book. The author begins with a brilliant prologue in which New Yorkers going about their business on an August morning in 1974 begin to comprehend that something astounding is happening on the roofs of the World Trace Center towers above them. (Yes, you will feel echoes of 9/11 but he leaves that to you, it’s not the point right now.) Then the narrative slices back to Dublin, where the Corrigan brothers are growing up in a house facing the sea. McCann spends a lot of time here and it was in this section that I came closest to giving up on the book. I couldn’t understand why I was there.
But Corrigan’s religious quest is not, in the end, that far from Petit’s insanity on the high wire. The book is seeded with references to heights, climbing, attempts, falls, courage. The wide network of characters (and narrative voices), from the failed coke-addict painter to the Park Avenue matron to the Stanford hackers working on those new-fangled “computers” all mesh in ways that make sense. There’s a lot of pain and a lot of beauty. One of the characters thinks to herself, “everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.” Which of course is a kind of summation of the book. But my favorite snippet was this: “everyone knows where they are from when they know where it is they want to be buried.”