When I started to read Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, I got that buzzing sensation I get when I'm experiencing some piece of art that feels as though it was created especially with me in mind. I had that feeling early in Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude, another great book set at the same time as this one.
It's New York in the early 1970's and in that broken city, McCann presents a cast of broken souls. A Quixote-like priest lives among destitute drug addicts and hopeless prostitutes of the South Bronx. A group of women console one another having all lost sons to Viet Nam. A judge who must deal with a daily parade of the city's worst stories. McCann presents all of these lives with grace and a kind of impenetrable beauty that can only come from a disaster area.
All of these stories intertwine at some point in the book but one event occurs that brings the whole city together: Philippe Petit's transcendent walk across a tightrope strung between the Twin Towers on August 7,1974. For all us New Yorkers, we remember a very different day when all our eyes were locked on the World Trade Center. On September 11th, we were a nation that had been overconfident and perhaps oblivious to the hardships of life. But on that day, we were forced to witness an unimaginable horror as a communal act. Petit's walk in 1974 however, delivered a kind of communal joy to a city that on the contrary had been overwhelmed with hardships. Without directly addressing 9/11, McCann makes us realize that in both times, there had been a joining of lives, great and small. It is this mystery, this joy that this book so beautifully explores.
Let the Great World Spin was a gift from my brother whom I love very much.