Colum Mc-Cann begins his 2009 National Book Award winner, “Let the Great World Spin,” powerfully: “Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful.” He describes that summer morning in 1974 when work-bound crowds in lower Manhattan formed to watch a tiny figure dressed in black stand 110 stories up at the edge of a newly built World Trade Center tower. “None of them had yet made sense of the line strung at his feet from one tower to the other,” McCann says. “It was the dilemma of the watchers: they didn’t want to wait around for nothing at all, some idiot standing on the precipice of the towers, but they didn’t want to miss the moment either, if he slipped, or got arrested, or dove, arms stretched.” Ah, New Yorkers.
McCann’s seventh book is a breathtaking work — an appropriate description for a novel that is centered on a truly breathtaking event that took place on August 7, 1974, when the pixie-like Frenchman, Philippe Petit went back and forth across a wire strung from one of the World Trade Center towers to the other. Petit stunned the crowds by running, dancing, even hopping from one tower to another before his arrest.
Yet the Irish-born McCann, now a New Yorker, did not want to focus on Petit’s feat — an author’s note refers readers to Petit’s own book “To Reach the Clouds” (2002). Rather, as McCann immersed himself in the history of New York during the mid-‘70s, he tells interviewers he found he was more interested in the lives of ordinary New Yorkers, “ones who walked a tightrope just one inch off the ground” during those tense times. The city was going bankrupt, the Vietnam War soldiers were returning and the racial conflicts in the Bronx were out of control.
McCann telescopes down to tell the stories of 10 New Yorkers starting on that summer day. What McCann accomplishes so masterfully is the way in which each story has its own tone, it’s own language, yet they become so gracefully entwined as he proceeds. The first story, a gritty one, features Corrigan, an Irish street priest who lives in the deteriorating South Bronx and devotes his life to helping the prostitutes who work the streets below his barebones apartment; yet the next story involves Claire, a wealthy Park Avenue matron who is entertaining a group of women she met through a newspaper ad for mothers who have lost sons in Vietnam. That same day a young, married pair of artists with their bodies still full of cocaine from the night before drive into the city and on the FDR Drive are involved in a small accident with huge consequences.
It’s beautiful to watch how effortlessly McCann connects these people’s lives. A book that begins so powerfully ends the same way, with small, beautiful acts by ordinary people bringing light into the lives of others.