I was just in New York City during the 10th anniversary of 9/11. For the remembrance of the day, two huge light columns blazed into the night sky to replicate the twin towers. In Let the Great World Spin, the twin towers are in their infancy. They are looked upon by the critics as “the largest aluminum siding job in the history of the world.” That is until the French acrobat, Philippe Petit, strung 210 feet of braided cable from tower to tower 110 stories up. Then he walked across. As McCann tells us, Petit, “was pureness moving..He was inside and outside his body at the same time, indulging in what it meant to belong to the air.” (In an eerie “premonition”, while Petit is walking between the towers, someone from below takes a picture of a jetliner crossing in back of him which looks as if the plane is flying into the tower.) The tight rope walk of Petit is the fulcrum of this novel. It is, in a way, a novel of six degrees of separation. It really reminds me of the movie Crash. It is a novel that brings back unpleasant memories for NYC and the times…the raging debate over the Vietnam war, the resignation of Nixon, the decaying of a great city ridden with crime and trash, and the burgeoning of drug use. Read more…
The story begins with the brothers Corrigan, fresh from Ireland. Corrie belongs to a religious order and lives among the detritus of the projects to minister to the prostitutes and the homeless. His brother, Ciaran, is aimless and tends bar. Then we have Claire and Gloria. Claire, a wealthy, white 5th avenuer whose husband is a judge. Gloria, a well educated twice divorced black woman who has made some bad choices and ends up in the projects. What brings them together is love , loss and then grief. The love of their son/3 sons and the loss of and the grief for their son/3 sons in the Vietnam war. We then meet Tillie Henderson alias Miss Bliss alias Puzzle alias Rosa P. alias Sweetcakes, a prostitute who works under the Major Deegan Expressway and who swears she will NEVER EVER let her daughter, Jazzlyn, walk the walk. But she does and tragically. Blaine and Lara. The self indulgent, drug and sex addled “artists” that push a chain of “dominoes” …which begets great personal suffering. On the day that Philippe Petit walks his tightrope, like the citizens of NYC metaphorically do everyday, the stories of Corrie, Ciaran, Claire, Gloria, Tillie, Jazzlyn, Blaine and Lara collide.
The writing is literary but doesn’t beat you over the head with cleverness or elitism. Claire’s husband, on the day that he sentences both Tillie and Petit, he says about the job of processing criminals, ” he watched the parade come in and out and he wondered how the city had become such a disgusting thing on his watch…It was like surveying the evolution of slime. You stand there long enough and the gutter gets slick, no matter how hard you battle against it.” Claire thought that the tightrope walker was up there “with no thought of death.” And it angered her. “A stupid endless menu of death…Death by drowning, death by snakebite, death by mortar, death by wooden stake, death by bullet, death by piranha, death by sorrow, death by trip wire…but death by tightrope? Death by performance?” She felt he made life cheap. He made her own son’s “so cheap”.
In the end, the ends are all tied up. Not nicely but messily, like life. “It has never occurred to me before, ” one character says, “but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last but connected.” McCann creates some very memorable characters that you truly come to care about and he creates a New York of the 1970’s that you can feel palpitate.
Final word: An exceptional novel