Colum McCann’s commanding, polyphonic new novel, Let the Great World Spin, may be set 35 years in the past, but its vision of 1974 New York City feels timely, even prophetic. No, we’re not there yet. New York’s murder rate is still a third of what it was in ‘74. The muggers, arsonists, pimps, and prostitutes of those bad old days (all vividly on display in McCann’s novel) haven’t crowded back in. But this recession has shaken the city’s once-imperturbable sense of itself. We’re all worried where we’re headed—which makes McCann’s finely rendered portrait of New York on the skids so mesmerizing.
Thankfully, the picture is not apocalyptic. McCann is Irish by birth (though he’s lived in New York for years) and this may help explain the novel’s resilience, its buoyancy in the face of hardship. The message is: Fellowship and human warmth survive economic distress—a welcome one, reiterated in each of the novel’s many narrative strands. And there are quite a few. McCann’s book is as crowded as a subway train, one that starts in the grim projects of the South Bronx, proceeds to a Park Avenue penthouse, to a Centre Street courtroom, to Rikers Island, and beyond.
McCann gauges a crowd’s reaction to the sight of Philippe Petit high in the air: “The watchers below pulled in their breath all at once. The air felt suddenly shared.” With so much driving McCann’s characters apart—class, race, religion—Petit is a unifying gift.
The result is a social panorama à la Wolfe or Doctorow. Each chapter features its own narrator, its own storyline, a narrative strategy that slows the novel’s momentum but provides an astonishing breadth of vision. In his previous bestselling historical novels ( Zoli, Dancer, This Side of Brightness) McCann has been acclaimed for his versatility. No less here: McCann inhabits the voice of an Irish immigrant as easily as that of a 34-year-old black prostitute, a Max’s Kansas City hipster, a world-weary judge, a teenager from the Bronx.
And, at the center of everything, is Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker who traversed the World Trade Towers on a cable the day the novel is mostly set: August 7, 1974. Thanks to last year’s terrifically entertaining documentary, Man on Wire, we know all about Petit’s heist-like stunt. McCann gives us very little of that backstory (and never names Petit). He’s more interested in the walk as a symbol, a unifying theme, and it serves handsomely. Returned to throughout the book, Petit’s walk is a glimpse of hope in a depressed time, “pureness moving,” “a divine delight.” In the prologue, McCann gauges a crowd’s reaction to the sight of him high in the air: “The watchers below pulled in their breath all at once. The air felt suddenly shared.” With so much driving McCann’s characters apart—class, race, religion—Petit is a unifying gift.
McCann is good everywhere, but he’s at his colorful best in the chaos of the South Bronx, where the novel begins. Corrigan, a 31-year-old priest from Ireland, has settled among prostitutes and drug dealers in a housing project. His visiting brother recoils from what he sees: “The sunset was the color of muscle, pink and striated gray. Arson…Whole streets of tenements and warehouses abandoned to smolder. Gangs of kids hung out on the street corners. Traffic lights were stuck on permanent red…Every now and then a figure emerged from the shadows, homeless men pushing shopping trolleys piled high with copper wire. They looked like men on a westward-ho, shoving their wagons across the nightlands of America.”
When the police arrest a pair of the hookers—friends of Corrigan’s—events take a turn for the tragic. We’re so invested in Corrigan’s story that it is initially disappointing to shift to that of Claire Soderberg, a lonely, painfully self-conscious 52-year-old Park Avenue matron who has lost her son to Vietnam. But McCann is weaving a web here and Claire’s story will eventually intersect with Corrigan’s, as will that of the next narrator, Lara Liveman, a Midwestern downtown scenester, and so on.
In its complexities of structure, chorus of voices, and the lyricism of its language, the novel recalls Don DeLillo’s masterpiece Underworld. McCann works a narrower canvas, and has, perhaps, a softer heart. I confess I was new to McCann before Let the Great World Spin, but this was a fine introduction to a major talent. It is one of the year’s best novels.
Taylor Antrim is a critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel, The Headmaster Ritual.