Between the Covers

Let The Great World Spin

Colum McCann

On August 7 1974 New York City stopped to look up. Against the dawn a tiny figure danced on a wire between the twin towers.

Let the Great World Spin contains only a few pages dedicated to Phillipe Petit’s “art crime of the century”. The rest, told through a succession of voices, pieces together New York life like a jigsaw a quarter of a mile below. In subways, prisons, penthouses and projects, Colum McCann’s characters collide through sets of strange and ordinary circumstance in what at first seems a circuitous journey into each separate human experience.

I laughed, cried and squirmed in my chair. This audacious puzzle of events is well deserving of the National Book Award. Dublin born, I wonder is it the Irish in McCann that gives his New York tale such grit, angst and humour?

The story begins with Corrigan, an Irish priest and pacifist in the Bronx. Tilley and daughter Jazzlyn are among the hookers who come and go through his door to use the bathroom. The comfort Corrigan finds in “the hard cold truth – the filth, the war, the poverty – was that life can be capable of small beauties.” On Park Avenue, Judge Soderberg leaves for his ‘gutter watch’ while Claire dithers about what to wear. Today she is hostess for five bereaved mothers. Gloria, who lost three sons to Vietnam, is the only African-American.

Lara and Blaine, artists and cocaine refugees, come to NY for one fateful day in their 1927 Pontiac. McCann’s writing leaps from graphic to lyrical when he describes her later despair – “the stars looked like nailheads in the sky – pull a few of them out and the darkness would fall. Tilley’s chapter hammers from her hooker pavement, “among all those splotches of pigeon shit… Just looking down and seeing them like they was my carpet.”

A group of Californian computer programmers hack phone lines for fun. Below the towers Sable Senatore picks up the receiver in a booth and tells them what she sees. Meanwhile Fernando rides subways making art out of graffiti with his camera. He takes one daylight shot, “pure dud, he was sure of it”, a photo of a “dark toy” walking the sky as a plane flies centimetres short of clipping the south tower. It’s an optical illusion of course and one of the few oblique references to 9/11. This is to McCann’s credit. There are so many books already riding the events of that day. Here is a story that does something different.

Trivia footnote: In 1973, one year before the twin towers, Phillipe Petit enthralled Aquarius Festival goers with his tightrope antics on wires stretched between the trees and telegraph poles of Nimbin.


Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.

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