Review

Let the Great World Spin

by Colum McCann

LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN begins in New York City with the thoughts and observations of the spectators of Phillipe Petit as he sets out to walk the tightrope between the Twin Towers in 1974. One bright morning, those in the courtyard see a man heading toward the edge of the Tower, a quarter of a mile high in the sky, not knowing why he is up there or if he will fall. Some are thrilled by the danger of it, while others are scared for him. They still don't know that he's a tightrope walker. Then they see the metal bar that he carries, and he ventures out. We begin with many stories of New Yorkers --- each one told through their own eyes --- that will intersect with the events of the day.

There are a number of different people who will form this picture of New York City --- rich and poor, old and young, with many ethnic backgrounds. There is a priest and his older brother, immigrants from Ireland. The priest has an affinity for the underprivileged and the "low-lifes" of the world. His brother comes to visit him in New York and finds him immersed in the projects, helping when he can. There is a group of prostitutes in the projects who know the priest, including a mother-daughter team. There are the elderly folks of a nursing home where the priest works as a van driver, and a young immigrant from Guatemala who also works there. There is an artist couple who has become preoccupied with the night life of New York; strung out and wasting away on drugs, they attempt to recreate a more simple life by "getting back to the past." There is a group of grieving mothers who have lost their sons to war and are trying to find composure and friendship. There are the sons who have been lost and will never return. There is a judge who sentences the "low-lifes" and decides the destiny of many. And there are the spectators, the tightrope walker, and others.

Colum McCann creates a picture of many things --- of depravity versus triumph, of people divided but still one. It can be seen as a picture of the heart of New York City, or of America, or of the human condition. The view is both heartbreaking and inspired. We are reminded that we all share ties of suffering and loneliness, yet, through the artistry of the tightrope walker, people are also capable of great feats and will always keep going. This book is infused with artistry and has a certain touch of destiny to it, not in an idealistic sense where everything is predetermined to work out, but in the sense that we are all connected to each other and to a greater whole. The style of the writing is poetic at times, yet adaptable to the perspective being told. The result is a powerful form of realism that will leave you stunned.

There is deep symbolism in LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN for the future of the Twin Towers. McCann never needs to bring attention to the significance of this because readers already know it; it's ever-present. There is a photo of the Towers in 1974 with a plane flying by that reminds you, without a single word, of what will happen. The symbolism of the tightrope walker's triumph weaves itself seamlessly into the fate of the Towers until this too becomes part of the meaning of the book. We remember that monuments are not always meant to last but that they still attest to our determination as a people to keep going, just as Phillipe Petit did years ago.

After reading LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN, I could only think to myself Wow! Incredible. It's a rare kind of writer who can weave such a complicated picture together and have it make perfect sense, and with subtlety and vitality. This is powerful literature that will leave you feeling thunderstruck with the finale. A definite must-read.

Reviewed by Melanie Smith (melanies@daywesthealthcare.com) on December 30, 2010

Let the Great World Spin
by Colum McCann

  • Publication Date: December 2, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0812973992
  • ISBN-13: 9780812973990