Let the Great World Spin - Book review

It was so much like having sex with the wind. It complicated things and blew away and softly separated and slid back around him. The wire was about pain too: it would always be there, jutting into his feet, the weight of the bar, the dryness at his throat, the throb of his arms, but the joy was losing the pain so that it no longer mattered. So too with his breathing. He wanted his breath to enter the wire so that he was nothing. This sense of losing himself. Every nerve. Every cuticle. He hit it on the towers. The logic became unfixed. It was the point where there was no time. The wind was blowing and his body could have experienced it years in advance. (page 241)

Let the Great World Spin is a historical novel about Philippe Petit who, in 1974, walked a tightrope between the World Trade Center towers. But we don’t hear much about this factual character. We catch fictional glimpses of him throughout the novel, from spectators, from the judge who sentenced him for his bold act, even from some geeks in California who hack into the phone lines and get some odd eyewitness reports of “the walk,” as it’s referred to.

It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected. The dozen or so characters we meet in the book are somehow connected by this moment in time – some as witnesses to the event and some by having a life-changing event happening to them at the time of the walk.

Petit isn’t the only person in the story who does the impossible; others are walking the tightrope that is life, performing such death defying acts as enduring the death of a child; devoting a life to helping the hopeless, the hookers and pimps and destitute; watching a brother sink into an impossible life; losing a new love. We are the spectators to this diverse bunch of people, some who conquer the tightrope and some who slip and fall.

One of my favorite characters is Gloria, a Black woman who seemingly plays a minor role until the end of the book. She tells her story of growing up in Missouri, with a devoted mother and father.
That was the sort of everyday love I had to learn to contend with: if you grow up with it, it’s hard to think you’ll ever match it. I used to think it was difficult for children of folks who really loved each other, hard to get out from under that skin because sometimes it’s just so comfortable you don’t want to have to develop your own. (page 289)
There is one photo of the actual tightrope walk in the book. In an eerie foreshadowing, there is a plane above Petit that looks as though it’s about to hit one of the towers. McCann’s character Jaslyn, in 2006, references it in an elegant way: One small scrap of history meeting a larger one…the collision point of stories.

McCann writes beautifully and I will be reading more of his books in the future. (4/5)


dohlink said...

I'd love to read this. I saw the documentary "Man on Wire", that chronicled his life on the wire from youth until his Twin Towers adventure. Interesting character, seemingly singly focused, as were associates and supporters who surrounded him, to take on the next dangerous project. According to the documentary, after the Twin Towers feat, he and all those who stuck with him through the years, including his girlfriend, went their separate ways.