In August 1974, a Frenchmen called Philippe Petit illegally stretched a cable between the top floors of the World Trade Center Towers. He then walked the distance separating the then two tallest buildings in the world. Below, New York stopped to watch him, and people connected as only strangers in the city can connect.
“Let the Great World Spin” is about a group of very different people who interact during that surreal day and how those moments influence the rest of their lives. Each chapter is dedicated to one particular character, among them the conflicted Irish priest who defends the cause of the Bronx’s prostitutes, the first hackers working on the ARPANET and the married couple in the “Studio 54”-type scene. Each is part of the others’ lives, but sometimes the connection is so subtle that you really need to be paying attention to spot it.
My favorite chapter was Claire’s. She is the mother of a Vietnam victim living in Park Avenue, who joins an informal group of other mothers in the same situation. On the day Petit walks the wire, she is to host the meeting. McCann brilliantly takes us into her head: the obsessive planning, the half-hidden guilt of being wealthy and the stream of consciousness of one used to live mostly in her head:
“From the outside, the sounds of Park Avenue. Quiet. Ordered. Controlled. Still, the nerves jangle in her. Soon she will receive the women. The prospect ties a small knot at the base of her spine. She brings her hands to her elbows, hugs her forearms. The wind ruffles the light curtain at the window. Alençon lace. Handmade, tatted, with silk trimmings. Never much for French lace. She would have preferred an ordinary fabric, a light voile.”
What makes Claire’s story so fascinating is that far down the book we will see the same meeting seen from another (very different) perspective. As Jane Austen said “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other half.”
I’ve read enough books to know how very rare it is to find a writer that can pull off believable distinctive voices (you know, not just slang vs. Oxford English, but the use of language by different personalities), so I was able to appreciate the human mosaic which Colum McCann created with this book. I also felt that New York City was a character in its own right. McCann recreated the mood of the place and time so vividly, that I’m not surprised that a film adaptation is already “in development”.
“Gangs of kids hung out on the street corners. Traffic lights were stuck on permanent red. At fire hydrants there were huge puddles of stagnant water. A building on Willis had half collapsed into the street. A couple of wild dogs picked their way through the ruin. A burned neon sign stood upright. Fire trucks went by, and a couple of cop cars trailed each other for comfort. Every now and then a figure emerged from the shadows, homeless men pushing shopping trolleys piled high with copper wire. They looked like men a westward-ho, shoving their wagons across the nightlands of America.”
It was one of the best reads of the year so far. One of those rare books which is a pleasure for the story and for the way it’s written.
I’m off now to see Man on Wire and learn more about Petit’s adventure…