Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
There's a certain amount of temptation to apply to Hunter College's Creative Writing MFA, not because I have any pretensions of writing fiction myself, but just to have classes led by authors like Peter Carey, Nathan Englander, and Colum McCann. McCann is big news these days, having recently won both the National Book Award, and perhaps more lucratively, the spot at the top of Amazon's Best of 2009, for his fifth novel, Let the Great World Spin. In this extraordinary book, McCann tells a series of tales about disparate inhabitants of New York City, a city of loners that was connected for one day in August 1974 by Philippe Petit's famous Twin Towers tightrope walk:
Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some though at first that it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it might be the perfect city joke--stand around and point upward, until people gathered, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were starting upward at nothing at all, like waiting for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag. But the longer they watched, the surer they were. He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped dark against the gray of the morning. A window washer maybe. Or a construction worker. Or a jumper.
Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky.
Throughout the book there are interludes describing Petit's advance onto the wire, and even an extended flashback to his training for the event. But Let the Great World Spin is not just about this event, it is about this moment in time, about the city and the people thirteen-hundred feet below, who turned, transfixed, en masse, toward the Twin Towers for not the last time. Of these many millions, McCann has crafted a group portrait of a dozen or so whose lives are intertwined by more than just Petit's walk: an Irish street priest and his brother; a pair of prostitutes, mother and daughter, whom the priest was ministering to (in his fashion); an artist couple that survive a fateful car accident; a group of mothers who meet in each other's homes to discuss the sons they've lost in Vietnam; and the judge husband of one these women.
The novel opens with narration by an Irishman who has come to New York to see Corrigan, his wandering priest brother. He reminisces about their childhood, in which Corrigan always stood out as a bit unusual:
Nothing else was mentioned, until two years later he gave that blanket away too, to another homeless drunk, on another freezing night, up by the canal on one of his late-night walks, when he tiptoed down the stairs and went out into the dark. It was a simple equation to him--others needed the blankets more than he, and he was prepared to take the punishment if it came his way. It was my earliest suggestion of what my brother would become, and what I'd later see among the cast-offs of New York--the whores, the hustlers, the hopeless--all of those who were hanging on to him like he was some bright hallelujah in the shitbox of what the world really was.
In New York, Corrigan has chosen to live amongst a group of prostitutes working an expressway underpass in the Bronx, much to his brother's astonishment and regret. His nearby apartment is left unlocked so that the women can come and use the bathroom at their leisure, Corrigan's "little gesture" that already cost him a beating from one of the local pimps. Amongst the girls are a mother and daughter, Tillie and Jazzlyn, and when they get arrested on an outstanding robbery warrant, it is Corrigan who tracks them down. And it is Corrigan who dies in a car crash with Jazzlyn on the way back from her arraignment:
We have all heard of these things before. The love letter arriving as the teacup falls. The guitar striking up as the last breath sounds out. I don't attribute it to God or to sentiment. Perhaps it's chance. Or perhaps chance is just another way to try to convince ourselves that we are valuable.
Yet the plain fact of the matter is that is happened and there was nothing we could do to stop it...
From here the story pivots, seemingly without any connection (for now), to a fancy Park Avenue apartment where Claire Soderberg awaits a visit from a group of women with whom she shares the misfortune of having lost a son to the war in Vietnam. That is just about all it would seem Claire has in common with these women, none of whom live anywhere close to Park Avenue:
She has been to four houses over the past eight months. All of them simple, clean, ordinary, lovely. Staten Island, the Bronx, two on the Lower East Side. Never any fuss. Just a gathering of mothers. That's all. But they were drop-jawed at her address when she finally told them. She had managed to avoid it for a while, but then they went to Gloria's apartment in the Bronx. A row of projects. She had never seen anything like it before. Scorch marks on the doorways. The smell of boric acid in the hall. Needles in the elevator. She was terrified.
And yet it is Gloria whom she feels the closest bond with, despite the distance that their lives have put between them. It is in these unexpected intersections that McCann's novel thrives, illuminating the ways in which disparate lives can converge, if even for a moment, with tremendous consequences for better or worse. This is not a wholly original premise, the repeated criss-crossing of a small cast of characters, but it usually relies on such banal flukes as to drown the suspension of disbelief; see, e.g. Crash. Either because of the strength of his characters, his prose, or both, McCann's narrative rises above this peril.