Let the Great World Spin

Raised in Dublin and relocated to New York City, the Irish novelist Colum McCann has been confined in his fiction to no one place, time, or culture. His novel Zoli chronicled a fictional woman poet of the Romani people, while Dancer wove its wide research into the intimately imagined story of Rudolf Nureyev, the driven ballet genius born into Soviet poverty. In an earlier novel, This Side of Brightness, McCann explored the tunnels that run beneath Manhattan, using them as a landscape, a window onto history, and a symbol of life that carries on out of sight, in spite of society’s best effort to neglect it.

McCann’s new novel expands on the theme of high and low, opening with an act of derring-do in the sky that becomes a touchstone for the story’s earthbound characters. Let the Great World Spin (the title comes from Alfred, Lord Tennyson, riffing on themes in old Arabic poetry) is again set in New York, and much of its action takes place on a day in August 1974. Early that morning — in real life, not just this novel — a Frenchman named Philippe Petit used a bow and arrow to sling into place a cable uniting the giant Twin Towers of the recently built World Trade Center. Then, unbelievably, he walked across this cable. He laid down on it and got back up, twirled, and ignored, with puckish bravado, police calls for him to desist; you may have seen the event memorialized in last year’s absorbing documentary, Man on Wire. In a prologue, McCann introduces the image of this artist-madman — a dot in the air beneath which skeptical but amazed New York crowds gather, nervous to name what they see. “The man above was a word they seemed to know, though they had not heard it before.”

The story then shifts to render the lives of a series of characters at around the time of Petit’s walk. The first voice we hear belongs to an Irishman in his early 30s named Ciaran Corrigan. Not yet focused on a life goal for himself, a worried Ciaran has come to town to visit the younger brother who has confounded him since their childhood in 1950s Dublin Bay (a setting quickly and casually, vividly evoked by McCann.) The brother is called just Corrigan, or sometimes Corrie. He is blue-eyed and handsome, with a magnetic sincerity. He’s always been comfortable among lowlifes, and in his way he’s a rebel — but his way is the devout way of charity, maybe even of self-sacrifice. Now skinny and sunken-cheeked, Corrigan is a kind of radical monk living in a project in the Bronx, lending rides to the elderly and his brave but weak protection to prostitutes. In return the women taunt but secretly adore him.

The atmosphere at first seems squalid to Ciaran, and menacing: razor-wire, heroin needles, women with straps for clothes soliciting as cars speed past on the Major Deegan Expressway. This is New York in the ’70s, after all, a place whose crime-ridden breakdown was notorious enough to fuel a slew of classic movies. But Ciaran also starts to see that there is some beauty, “something to be recognized and rescued, some joy.” In the novel’s lackadaisical structure, McCann feels free to switch back and forth between first-person and third-person voices. Ciaran’s narration introduces us to a few characters who will eventually speak for themselves — or at least star in their own portion of the story, omnisciently narrated. There’s Tillie, for instance, a still-pretty black prostitute and addict, tough on the surface, simultaneously withered and flailing inside due to regret and the harshness of a life that has known kindness only twice. And there’s Adelita, a widowed young mother of two from Guatemala, for whom the almost saintly Corrigan has developed a man’s feelings. She returns feelings of her own, raising the question of what to do about it.

But fate in this novel does not care about plans. While the tightrope walker is up in the air an incident occurs below that reroutes many paths. The repercussions move outward: to a white artist who has allowed her career to get stalled by a pseudo-bohemian boyfriend and a coke habit. Also to a Park Avenue matron, apparently privileged — but, inside, almost wholly defined by the grief of losing her son, a budding computer wizard, in Vietnam.

In different voices framed by their different worldviews, McCann’s characters describe images that haunt their memory, the imperfect choices they have made — or sometimes just the thick texture of their day. McCann extends compassion to his characters, exploring the kinds of light-hearted and desperate thoughts people really share; and he makes a theme out of compassion’s presence or lack in their lives. The quality appears in some of them suddenly, like grace, but acting on it guarantees them no karmic protection against harm. Similarly, McCann presents the nutty beauty of the wire-walker’s gesture as something that briefly wields transformative power. The unpredicted can be hopeful, absurd, exhilarating. Yet this offered no protection whatsoever nearly three decades later, on September 11, as McCann knows his readers cannot help but be aware.

If anything, at times the themes of Let the Great World Spin seem a bit too well established, the characters illustrative, even as McCann’s portraits of them offer some intense and lovely moments. A minor character or two feel like a type from the period, and sometimes when the characters wax poetic or philosophical about time or human nature they sound distractingly like the novelist talking.

Interested though McCann is in those who fall off their life’s wire — whether through error, random luck, or cruel circumstance denying them the chance to thrive — he is most compelling here writing of survival. The novel nears its close with the strong voice of Gloria, a black woman originally from Missouri. From the outside she looks like a sweet, fat old church lady. But this turns out to be a consciously worn mask hiding her wry judgments, her weary self-protection, and her giving up on God after too much loss. Near the beginning of the novel Corrigan framed the problem with life as he saw it: “All those days when you can’t hold on any longer. When you tumble. The test is being able to climb up again.” When her test comes, Gloria stays true to herself and meets it with resolve. In another novelist’s hands her kind of perseverance might feel like the expected happy ending. In this novel it is a welcome, suspenseful exception to the rule.