Lots of people talk about working without a net. But no one has ever done so on the scale of Philippe Petit, the French high-wire artist who spent 45 minutes walking, hopping, and lying on a wire stretched 110 stories up between the World Trade Center towers on Aug. 7, 1974.
Petit’s act of criminal artistry inspired this year’s Academy Award-winning documentary, “Man on Wire.” Now, acclaimed writer Colum McCann (“Zoli”) uses “the man in the air” as the axis for his gritty yet hopeful new novel Let the Great World Spin.
Today’s readers cannot think “World Trade Center” without remembering Sept. 11. That tragedy adds an automatic level of poignancy, as McCann harks back to a time when New Yorkers gazed up at the towers in amazement, rather than horror.
Told from multiple points of view, McCann, who lives in New York, performs his own gravity-defying act, swooping from prostitutes to priests, drug-addled artists to grieving mothers as his story unfolds around that morning. Everyone – from the judge who fined Petit a penny a floor and sentenced him to a children’s performance in Central Park, to the artist himself, who spent six years training for and planning his audacious feat – is touched, sometimes in heartbreaking ways, by the performance. And unlike in Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” this center holds. McCann has more on his mind than “mere anarchy.”
Like Corrigan, an Irish Catholic priest who takes shut-ins to the park and brings coffee to the prostitutes in the Bronx and endures beatings from their pimps, McCann searches for the divine in some of the grimmer corners of New York.
“What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday. The comfort he got from the hard, cold truth – the filth, the war, the poverty – was that life could be capable of small beauties. He wasn’t interested in the glorious tales of the afterlife or the notions of a honey-soaked heaven.... Rather he consoled himself with the fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light all the same.”
That little glow lights the novel as it looks at the fates of Corrigan and his more earthbound brother; two heroin-addicted prostitutes who are mother and daughter; a support group of mothers who have lost their sons in Vietnam; a Guatemalan nurse who is in love with Corrigan; and the daughter of one of the prostitutes. And there is Petit (or at least a fictionalized version of him), reminding himself and readers that “Nobody falls halfway.”
Practicing in a cabin in the Rockies, “He tuned himself to the wind. He listened not just for the gust, but for the anticipation of the gust. It was all down to whispers, suggestions. He would use the very moisture in his eyes to test for it. Here it comes.”
For Petit, “the core reason for it all was beauty. Walking was a divine delight. Everything was rewritten when he was up in the air.”
But if this is clear to Petit (and McCann), not all the characters see the beauty inherent in his feat. For Claire, a Park Avenue heiress whose brilliant son died in Vietnam while writing computer codes that could track the dead, a man dancing a quarter of a mile in the air was nothing short of an insult.
“Death by performance? That’s what it amounted to. So flagrant with his body. Making it cheap. The puppetry of it all. How dare he do that with his own body? Throwing his life in everyone’s face. Making her own son’s so cheap?”
In terms of sheer lyricism, McCann pulls out all the stops. My review copy was an absolute mess of Post-its and marked passages by the time I was halfway through “Let the Great World Spin.” He mixes passages of great beauty with the profane heartbreak of a grief-stricken mother, who, in jail, reflects on her powerlessness to protect her daughter from poverty, prostitution, and her own addictions.
Unlike writers of the Doctorow school, McCann isn’t out to impress readers with the sheer volume of his research or his ability to re-create precise details. (A red “Sesame Street” Muppet, for instance, wasn’t called Elmo until 1985. But so what?)
What he’s after is more evocative. As a boy, Corrigan tells his brother he would rather die with his heart on his sleeve than become a closed-off cynic. So would this novel.
“We stumble on ... bring a little noise into the silence, find in others the ongoing of ourselves. It is almost enough.”