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A Kaleidoscopic Book That'll Make Your 'World Spin'

by Wendy MacLeod
Mar 7, 2011

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Back in the days before Netflix, every time my husband and I walked into a video store, The Shawshank Redemption would be staring us in the face. The critics had raved about the movie, two fine actors appeared in it, and yet at a certain point, because the critics had raved about it, seeing the movie had turned into a duty rather than a pleasure. To this day, we haven't seen the film.

Fortunately I read Let The Great World Spin before I grew tired of seeing the book on the "staff pick" shelves. Don't let the awards and rave reviews put you off. Despite the fact that The New York Times called it "one of the most electric, profound novels ... in years," you must read this book.

By focusing the book and its characters through a single summer's day in 1974, the day a French tightrope-walker crossed a wire suspended between the World Trade Center buildings, the Irish writer Colum McCann offers us a glimpse into our collective past. If at first I feared that McCann's prismatic approach to New York would be dutifully multicultural, I came away dazzled by his ability to capture the voices of uptown and downtown: the prostitutes, immigrants, socialites and aspiring artists. Although we complain about the ongoing gentrification of New York City, McCann reminds us that in 1974, the deteriorating, bankrupt city was a difficult place to live.

The book opens on Corrigan, an Irish monk who lives in a housing project in the South Bronx, and leaves his apartment door open so that the streetwalkers might use the bathroom, a simple but astonishing act of compassion given the violence that might walk in that door. But Corrigan, who has chosen to live with the thieves and prostitutes, is no saint himself; the book suggests that he's a heroin addict, and his vow of chastity is tested by his love for a Guatemalan nurse. But just when we've learned our way around Corrigan's neighborhood, McCann takes us to Park Avenue, where we meet a socialite who is grieving for the son she lost in Vietnam.

Claire has joined an unlikely support group of mourning mothers from Staten Island and the Bronx but they might as well be from a different planet. When the meeting in Claire's Upper East Side penthouse begins to break up, Claire is so desperate for company that she misguidedly offers an African-American woman money to stay, inadvertently treating her like the hired help.

These two women, Claire and Gloria, mirror each other like the twin towers that function as the central image of the book. As Philippe Petit managed to cross the divide between the World Trade Center buildings one summer day, these women traverse the great divides of race and class to become friends. The many strands of the novel are plaited together when Claire accompanies Gloria back to the South Bronx and two needy children unexpectedly enter the women's lives, allowing them to finally get beyond their own grief. Corrigan's kindness plays a role in these people coming together; suggesting that goodness begets goodness, and that we are all, as McCann said in an interview, "intimately connected."

I may never know whether The Shawshank Redemption deserved its superlatives, but I can assure you that Let The Great World Spin comes by its reviews honestly. Don't let this book languish on the staff pick shelves.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman, Lena Moses-Schmitt and Amelia Salutz.

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Let The Great World Spin ()

WTC Provides Back Story For Colum McCann's 'Spin'

Nov 27, 2009 (Morning Edition)

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On a gray morning in August 1974, a man stepped off the edge of the yet-to-be completed World Trade Center and into history.

That morning, Philippe Petit crossed a wire stretched between the towers eight times. He danced, ran and lay down, performing for the crowd that had gathered more than 100 stories below his feet, before dismounting into the custody of New York police officers.

The tight-rope walk is the event around which a new novel, Let the Great World Spin, revolves. The book, by Colum McCann, won the National Book Award for fiction earlier this month.

Petit's death-defying act is familiar — it's also the subject of the documentary Man On Wire — but McCann tells Steve Inskeep that the people below were the ones whose lives he wanted to explore.

"What I was most interested in was not so much Philip Petit but the people who were on the ground, the people who walk the sort-of little tightrope of our ordinary everyday moments," McCann says.

The reactions of McCann's main characters to the stunt range from gripping fear that the tight-rope walker will fall, to disinterest or even disgust.

"I was interested in looking at what the dilemmas of their life happened to be," McCann says. "Not everybody is enthralled, in the novel, with the idea of the tight-rope walker. Some people, they look up into the sky and they see a man there on a wire, and why does he cheapen death by making it so easy and accessible?"

In the novel, one of McCann's characters describes fear as something floating in the air:

"It's like dust. You walk about and don't see it, don't notice it, but it's there. And it's all coming down, covering everything. You're breathing it in. You touch it, you drink it, you eat it. But it's so fine you don't notice it. But you're covered in it."

The passage's evocation of the ashes that thickened the air in lower Manhattan after the collapse of the towers was intentional, McCann says, and personal.

"My father-in-law was in the first building to be hit," he says. "He got out with 90 seconds to spare; he was one of the lucky ones. But he walked through that strange glaucoma storm of dust, and he came up to our house. I kept his shoes from that day, these shoes that are covered with the dust of the World Trade Center."

The ache of knowing that dust's history, without knowing its exact origin, haunted McCann.

"It could be concrete girder," he says. "It could be a curriculum vitae, a resume. It could be someone's eyelash. It could be a bit of all sorts of things."

For McCann, the desire to construct a back story proved both irresistible and fulfilling.

"I think we sort of have to try to reconstitute it and try to make meaning of it," McCann says. "I think we're learning to recover. I think we're moving toward moments of grace and understanding. And I think these things take time."

Asked where people might find grace in the midst of tension or tragedy, McCann answers with a lesson from a year he spent conversing with homeless men and women in New York before writing an earlier book.

McCann recalls: "These were people who had been through the most difficult of circumstances," but they always spoke of a life beyond the troubles they faced.

"Part of me really wants to believe that hope is entirely available to all of us. We don't have to embrace it. It would be sentimental and silly to say that we all need it, but it is absolutely available to all of us."

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