On some best fiction of 2009 list, I read that Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann, is a realistic depiction of New York City street life in the summer of 1974. I spent time in New York in the late 60’s, so I was intrigued. When I started reading, I didn’t know Let the Great World Spinhad won the 2009 National Book Award, and I hadn’t seen Man on Wire, which I finally viewed midway through the book.
I didn’t predict McCann’s writing would take my breath away as effectively as Philippe Petit’s high wire walk between the twin towers---the book’s centerpiece---would. Petit's treacherous walk 106 stories above the streets of New York is like the hub of a wheel, and the spokes radiating out…or in this case down….are some dozen lives captured stunningly by McCann. The book really isn’t about Philippe Petit, but he is the lynchpin, and without him and his feat, the voices and dramas of beautifully rendered characters would have no stage. Stories of a street priest, his soulful brother, junkies, prostitutes, artists, grieving mothers, computer hackers, a judge, orphaned babies and their caretaker, and others stand alone, intersect, and stand alone again, each an element in the writer’s profound patchwork.
Some critics say Let the Great World Spin is a precursor to the devastating events to come….as though Petit’s walk and the collapse of the twin towers were fateful bookends. McCann has a personal connection to the 9/11 tragedy, and healing is one of a kaleidoscope of themes. As allegory, the book resonates well beyond its time and place. As a novel of 1970’s New York, it is a multi-dimensional snapshot, suspended in time, of an era gone by.
Let the Great World Spin