In 1974, the aerialist Philippe Petit walked a tightrope — a cable, really — strung between the two towers of the World Trade Center. Briefly, his walk brought New York to a standstill: look at that! It’s a bird! No, it’s a man! Is he going to jump? What is he doing? Will he fall? Can he make it? Look, he’s actually lying down on the wire! Oh please… Among all the other chaos of that year — Vietnam, Watergate, feminism, race relations — one man held the city’s attention for a few moments with an utterly improbable feat of derring-do.
Colum McCann’s marvelous, boisterous 2009 novel Let the Great World Spin takes that walk and makes it the point of connection between several very different people who happened to see Petit that morning. Petit’s act is mirrored by Corrigan, an Irish émigré to the Bronx who looks for his equilibrium in the most dangerous places he can find it. Corrigan is a gentle saver of souls, who finds his home among the prostitutes and junkies of a grim housing project. He does what he can — keeps his bathroom open for the girls, keeps his kettle on, allows himself to be beaten by the pimps — but the prospects aren’t good. His story is told by his brother, Ciaran, who followed him to New York from Dublin and loves him but can’t quite fathom him; Corrigan is not quite of this world.
Corrigan is somehow undone by seeing Petit that day: by the courage or the contrast or something we never quite understand. The next day, he seems to brake the wrong way on the freeway, the car behind him clips him, and he and his passenger — a young prostitute named Jazzlyn in a Day-Glo swimsuit — fly through the windshield, exemplifying Petit’s motto that NO ONE FALLS HALFWAY.
After this, we get to see the lives touching these two shift, swirl, settle, and change through grief and recovery: Corrigan’s lover, Jazzlyn’s mother, Ciaran and the woman he meets at the funeral, one person touching another who touches a third. The novel is electric with possibility and life. It is profound with the idea that we are all alone, yet never alone. And above it all hovers Petit on his wire: a metaphor for writing, connecting us all with his thin thread of creativity and work.
Throughout the novel, we hear more stories, intimately or tangentially connected, and McCann adopts different narrative styles and voices as he tells them. There is Claire, whose son Joshua died in Vietnam, and who is now part of a grieving mothers’ group; Gloria, who is part of that same mothers’ group and who is caring for Jazzlyn’s two daughters, abandoned after her death; Solomon, Claire’s husband and the judge who passed down Petit’s sentence after his monumental prank on the city of New York. Some of these portraits work better than others — there’s a first-person portrait of a prostitute that was a pretty good chunk of cliché — but McCann keeps rolling them out, barely pausing to draw breath, everyone connected, everyone together, all the lights all over the city.
This book completely surprised me. It is a heartbreaking book, but never depressing. It gives a portrait of New York in its dirtiest days, and it takes everything from prisons to penthouses, prostitutes to angels, and shows us the tightrope connecting them all. Shows us that we never fall halfway. If you haven’t read it, if you thought the hype was suspect, quit waiting.