colum mccann


V.19 No.8 |

This Book I Just Read

Colum McCann's *Let the Great World Spin*

Hi, and welcome to This Book I Just Read. Remember I on Books? I'm not doing that anymore. Read this instead.

The book I just finished is Let the Great World Spin, the most recent National Book Award winner, by Colum McCann. Yah, I know: It came out last summer. What took me so long? Please. You think all I do is read? Well, actually, that is pretty much all I do. But only about 15% of my reading is for fun. The rest of it is articles for this rag (pretty fun), student papers (less fun), the Internet (really kind of a chore at this point) and self-help books, because something really must be done about my inability to self-actualize the rainbows promised to my goddess inside.

Let the Great World Spin is a winding tale about New York City in 1974, centered around a man who walks a tightrope between the then new World Trade Center towers, based off of the real-life escapades of Phillipe Petit (who is seeing a resurgence in interest with a documentary, Man on Wire, about him also recently released).

But the fantastic feat simply gives the novel and its army of characters a brief focus, a center to spin around. Hosts of characters get their own stories, ultimately meeting together, if even just in that they too saw the man on the wire: A pair of Irish brothers (one a sort-of priest, the other a man who lives in reaction to tragedy), generations of prostitutes, a wealthy mother on Park Avenue, disenchanted hippies, a woman from the segregated South who's an expert on loss, and the small, strange man who saw the towers go up and thought, you know what I could do...

The plot's important, sure, but it's the beauty of the prose that stuns. At times I questioned whether the poetry worked in each of the narrators' mouths, until I reconciled it artistically and moved on. This is less their story than it is a story of New York City, and I finally mean that in a good way. I'm so bored by the reams of books (not to mention Woody Allen and "Sex and the City") that drone on about NYC as the center of the world. I couldn't finish Jonathan Lethem's newest book because of that, because of the NYC narcissism of, This is where it's happening! You know what's in fashion? This hat shaped like a colander. Oh! It's out of fashion now. You know what's in fashion? Even when it's self-deprecating, it's still too self-involved. New York City and I have come to an understanding: we don't care about each other. Don't try to change us.

But McCann (an Irish native) forms a delicately balanced (in many ways, literally) vision of New York that never purports to be some frantically wonderful bastion of culture. Instead, it's the NYC of the '70s--dirty, corrupt. Think Mean Streets. It's ethnic and hard, and cheap as hell in spots, and divided. This isn't a place that anyone in his or her right mind would tout the wonders of; it just is. And what it is is a place where lives weave together with a stunning array of consequences. It's life, just like it is anywhere, just louder and further up.

You can listen to interviews with Petit and McCann on this episode of the radio program "To the Best of Our Knowledge." This is an episode where they talked about great books of 2009, and they also interviewed Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark and Termite, which is NOT A GOOD BOOK!!!