Just a few days before I embarked on Colum McCann’s new novel Let the Great World Spin, we had a movie night at the Magee household. Lauren made some ice cream and our neighbors came over with Man on Wire, the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary about Philippe Petit and his walk on a tightrope strung between the two towers of New York City’s World Trade Center in 1974, in hand.
While the film portrays Petit as a roguish eccentric (as anyone with his “hobby” would have to be), it also captures his famous walk as not so much a stunt as a sublime gesture – a graceful figure, clad all in black, impossibly high up, framed by massive towers and set against the huge morning sky. The film builds to this impressive, balletic payoff, a beautiful counterpoint to the antics of Petit and his cohort as they plot out and set into motion their daring plan.
Petit’s personality is larger than life and so was his act. So it is perhaps no surprise that in centering his novel around Petit’s walk, McCann makes the walk the book’s gravitational center and ignores the voluble Petit almost entirely. In an author’s note at the end of the book, McCann writes, “I have taken liberties with Petit’s walk, while trying to remain true to the texture of the moment and its surroundings.” And anyone who has watched Man on Wire will also find that with his few descriptions of the Petit’s preparations, McCann has invented for him a new, if thinly sketched, backstory.
A tightrope walker graces the cover of the book and though many reviews (as this one has) will likely devote ink to the famous act, it is little more than a backdrop to a disparate cast of characters. If Let the Great World Spin were a play, the action would take place in front of a painted backdrop showing the towers and the speck-like walker bathed in the morning light. The backdrop would sometimes be alluded to, but the action it depicted would never be a part of the foreground.
The book traces a number of lives, ranging from mother and daughter hookers to a judge to an Irish priest of a particularly ascetic order. The priest is Corrigan, who, as a peculiarly selfless child, wandered from home and gave the blankets from his bed to homeless drunks. As an adult, he entered the priesthood and got himself posted to the Bronx where he lives in a housing project and becomes a sort of den mother and mascot to the complex’s many prostitutes. Among them are Tillie and Jazzlyn Henderson, the mother and daughter pair, deeply jaded, scarred by heroin, but still irrepressible. These three, Corrigan’s brother, and several others form one of the book’s poles, and they are tied by a car accident to the novel’s other pole, a couple living on Park Avenue, Solomon and Claire Soderburg. He is a judge, she an heiress, devastated by the loss of their only son in Vietnam. Claire has joined a support group with other mothers who have lost sons. She is painfully self-conscious, on the morning of the tightrope walk, about having the group – all hailing from the outer boroughs – into her status-signifying Park Avenue penthouse. There are a number of other characters as well, all tied to New York City in the 1970s in one way or another.
To string his line between the towers, Petit shot fishing wire across the gap with a bow and arrow, and then he and his helpers tied progressively stronger and heavier ropes together until his heavy, steel wire could be hauled across. In the same way, McCann’s characters are at the outset connected by only the thinnest of filaments – proximity and shared experiences and not much else – but through the machinations of the plot and by dint of mishap and employment and chance they become more connected, sometimes tragically.
McCann’s mastery of character and voice is on full display in Let the Great World Spin, especially the Claire Soderburg’s fragile inner monologue and the mournful, staccato prison diary of Tillie Henderson. The novel is a bit shorter on plot, with much of the narrative energy devoted to the car accident at the center of the action and prizing out its impact on the lives of the characters. Some readers may wish the novel had more narrative to it, but McCann’s well-sketched characters and sense of place may be enough to satisfy.