Friday, April 9, 2010

Colum McCann returns us to 2004 as a way of thinking about the events of 2001

Colum McCann’s reflections on the tragic events at the World Trade Center in 2001 take him back to a different moment—1974—when we all turned our attention to the WTC because someone was walking a tightrope between the two towers. That feat is the basis of this wonderful novel.

Let the Great World Spin

In Let the Great World Spin (375 pages, Random House, $15), Colum McCann begins a reverie around Philippe Petit’s death-defying attempt to walk a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Petit had spent six years planning his feat, and McCann gives a brief account of that planning, and indeed he pays little direct attention to the walk itself.

Instead, he gives accounts of several lives that are taking place at the very moment at which the walk was happening. Some people gawk at the tightrope walker; others notice him in passing; and others try studiously to ignore him; but almost all the characters in the novel are indirectly affected by this stunning achievement. Of course, all of us living in a post 9/11 world think of that later World Trade Center disaster in which so many lost their lives. McCann surely wants us to make those connections, even if he does not mention them himself until the “Reader’s Guide” that follows the novel itself.

Key among the characters he deals with—and no one creates a more vivid sense of character than McCann does in these few portraits I mention—are the Corrigan brothers, who have emigrated from Ireland and are finding their way in a difficult city. John, the younger brother who is known simply as Corrigan, has had a religious vocation, but the only sense he can make of it is to work among the poorest and most destitute in New York. For him, these are the heroine-addicted prostitutes, mostly black, who wander the streets of the Bronx late at night. He offers them something of a shelter—nothing more really than a place to pee—and for that they are grateful to him, if not to say devoted. His older brother Ciaran has come to New York looking for him, but when he finds him he does not know whether he can ever extricate his brother from the life he has created for himself there.
We come to know both brothers intimately, and we also come to know several of the prostitutes and the other characters who populate the Bronx neighborhoods. One woman especially, Adelita, who works in a home for the disabled, stands out as a tower of strength. She and Corrigan have begun a relationship, and when tragedy strikes them, we learn more about her and how she has been able to cope with this rugged life of the city.

At the other end of the spectrum are Claire Soderberg and her husband Solomon, a judge, who live on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, on Park Avenue to be precise. The Soderberg’s have lost their son in the Vietnam war, and Claire belongs to a group of mothers who have also lost their children in the war. This group is meeting at Clair’s house on the main day during which the action transpires, and the women arrive with the tales of the tightrope walker. It seems like a miracle to them, and in their heads, where they have been hoping for miracles since hearing about their sons’ deaths, they somehow conflate the tightrope walker and their children. This makes for dazzling writing, to be sure.

The circle comes full circle when Solomon Soderberg is the judge that has to conduct Philippe Petit’s arraignment, for he was arrested after he completed crossing between the towers. The judge is pleased with himself for coming up with such an imaginative sentencing—Petit has to pay a penny for every floor of the Trade Center—but he also seems like a bit of a fool, especially when it comes to dealing with his wife, her friends, and the depth of her feeling of loss.

There is a lot more to say about this wonderful novel. There is a kind of generosity of spirit in the way these characters are presented, and their fortunes overlap in ways that are nearly unbelievable. I can hardly imagine a more searing portrait of New York in the seventies or a more vivid evocation of urban experience. At the same time, this is a timeless novel about human nature and the triumph of the human spirit. I can hardly recommend it strongly enough.

Colum McCann

Available at Powell's, Amazon, and Vroman's.

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