“Let the Great World Spin” by Collum McCann

Last year’s National Book Award for fiction winner, and one of the first “players” in this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books, Collum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin pivots around Phillip Petit’s tightrope walk between the Twin Towers in August 1974.

Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some thought at first that it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it might be the perfect city joke–stand around and point upward, until people gathered, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed , until all were staring upward at nothing at all, like waiting for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag. But the longer they watched, the surer they were. He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped dark against the gray of the morning. A window washer maybe. Or a construction worker. Or a jumper.

Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky.

The novel is constructed of chapters from different characters’ points of view, all related somehow to Petit’s walk and ultimately all related to one another. There’s a struggling priest advocating for the prostitutes in his neighborhood, his brother who recently emigrated from Ireland, mothers of boys killed in Vietnam, computer hackers, failed artists, and more. It builds tension as the stories begin and connect to the event, and becomes taut in the middle as they all come together. The last few chapters lost momentum for me, as they played out stories I thought would happen anyway. But the overall novel, fictionalized from an historic event, crowded with memorable, relate-able characters described in prose so skilled I hardly noticed how good it was, is a good read, and a very good book.

For more on Petit’s walk, see the Oscar-nominated Man on Wire, or read the Caldecott-winning children’s book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.

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