To make sense of public tragedies, we generally turn to nonfiction, be it the immediacy of a newspaper account or the arm’s length perspective of the historian. But it can take a good novelist to convey the full measure of private tragedy. Colum McCann accomplishes exactly that in his enveloping new novel, Let the Great World Spin. Set in New York City in 1974, the novel’s interconnected storylines pivot around a single headline-making event: Philippe Petit’s audacious tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers.
While momentarily galvanizing the cynical city, the funambulist’s showboating, with all its attendant symbolism, is largely a peripheral occurrence for the novel’s main characters—who are preoccupied with getting through the difficulties that define their days. At the start, each carries an abiding grief, a sense of loss that tentative human connections fail to assuage. Yet, the events of August 7, 1974, in the figurative shadow of the man on the tightrope, will change that.
Corrigan, an Irish monk, lives among the prostitutes and heroin addicts of a Bronx housing project. His brother, Ciaran, recently arrived from Dublin, wants to protect his younger sibling, but has very little patience for this self-sacrificing religious mission. The purest of spirits, Corrigan has rejected material trappings and blushes at the suggestive banter of his hooker charges with a beguiling lack of worldliness. Recently, though, he has met Adelita, a nurse at an old age home where he volunteers, and for the first time he is doing battle with his vow of chastity.
Down in the tonier environs of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Claire prepares to host a morning coffee for an informal support group of woman who, like her, have lost their sons in Vietnam. She is nervous that her posh Park Avenue digs might alienate the others, who hail from Staten Island, the Lower East Side and the Bronx. She is not entirely wrong about the women’s reactions, but in her anxiety, she only makes matters worse. Resentful when one of the women usurps the conversation by talking about the strange happenings at the Twin Towers, Claire reacts by losing herself in a rambling reverie about her son, Joshua, a computer whiz killed in a Saigon café. Only one among the women understands Claire’s defense mechanism—Gloria, a black woman who lives, coincidentally, in the same Bronx project as Corrigan. By day’s end, the two very different women will forge an unlikely alliance.
As it happens, Claire’s husband is the judge who will arraign the tightrope walker, but not before he hears the pleas of two of Corrigan’s streetwalker friends. Tillie and her teenage daughter, Jazzlyn, have been picked up by the cops and brought downtown. Corrigan has come along to help them. Tillie, with a long rap sheet, is advised to plead guilty, but the judge lets Jazzlyn go. It is on the return trip to the Bronx that Corrigan’s old van spins out of control on the FDR Drive and collides with another car. For Lara, a passenger in the other vehicle, the accident is a catalyst to improve her dissipated lifestyle. For the others—and their families—life is forever changed.
While most of the action takes place on this singular day in New York, the multi-voice narrative moves back in time to accommodate the rich stories of the Irish brothers’ Dublin childhood, Gloria’s Missouri upbringing, Claire’s marriage and motherhood, Lara’s heiress origins, Tillie’s years on the street, and Adelita’s Guatemalan past. At the end, the novel fast-forwards to 2006, as one of Jazzlyn’s daughters, now fully grown, supplies the final elements of the story.
McCann masterfully delineates each character’s voice, getting beneath the skin of vastly dissimilar human beings. He lends a forgiving tenderness that invigorates the timeless notion that we are not really all the different under the skin, each of us longing for love, for beauty, for those connections that will quell our loneliness. With its quality of mercy, Let the Great World Spin reminds us that while there may be no Oscar-nominated documentaries made about them, those who manage to walk the tightrope of life every day are perhaps the world’s most accomplished acrobats.