Let the Great World Spin

Ready for a roller coaster ride? Opening with Phillipe Petit’s famous tightrope walk, balancing across a steel wire strung between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974, Colum McCann jumps to a series of vignettes about New Yorkers in his National Book Award winning novel – Let the Great World Spin.

The stories start with the immigrant Irish Corrigan brothers, one with a penchant for saving the world and the other wondering why his brother wants to.  The narrative then jumps from the seedy neighborhood of prostitutes and drug dealers to the upscale East Side and a support group of mothers with dead sons from the Vietnam War.  As he flips back and forth in time and place, McCann demands your attention – serious, funny, scary.

McCann creates a New York in the seventies that rivals Erik Larson’s Chicago in Devil in the White City.     Let the Great World Spin reads like Theroux’s Hotel Honolulu – a mix of characters you don’t really want to know, but who help you understand what humanity is. The writing is so intense and specific, you’ll need to look away to watch the world slowly spin for a while to bear some of the raw truths –  but you will be compelled to go back to read.

The man on the tightrope becomes a metaphor for all their lives –

“Something about his appearance sitting heavy, bewildering.”

As you wonder how each character is connected to the tightrope walker, slowly McCann unravels their stories – Tillie, a thirty-eight year old grandmother and her daughter Jazzlyn, the hookers; Claire, the rich grieving mother married to a judge; her friend Gloria; the brilliant young computer hack; the Irish brothers; Laura, the hit-and-run driver – flitting back and forth to fill in important pieces of the puzzle.

You would think with all these characters, you would get lost – but you don’t, and suddenly it all comes together.   Along the way, bits of philosophy escape from the most unlikely sources…

“Years ago… I developed a manner of saying things that made people happy, kept them talking so I didn’t have to say much myself. I guess now I’d say that I was building a wall to keep myself safe.”

“People think they know the mystery of living in your skin. They don’t. There’s no one knows except the person who carts it around her own self.”

“ We stumble on…bring a little noise into the silence, find in others the ongoing of ourselves. It is almost enough.”

No one today can think of the Twin Towers without thinking about 9/11 and McCann closes with an incident familiar to all travelers who have suffered security restrictions since that day. Cleverly, he uses a common occurrence in an airport to connect the last pieces of the story and rush it forward from the seventies to present day. Phillipe Petit’s famous walk across the wire connecting the two towers was the catalyst that connected loves and life stories that are ongoing.

You come to the end of the ride satisfied and still spinning.