New York City has always been a site of great literary fascination. From the quiet social sketches of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence to the bustling urban life of John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer, writers have imagined and re-imagined the city countless times. The novelist Thomas Wolfe famously spoke of New York as a place which “one belongs…as much in five minutes as in five years.” And it’s not hard to see the truth in Mr. Wolfe’s sentiment. New York is historically a city of arrival, one composed of immigrants from all over the map. It is at once an intensely diverse and intensely American metropolis, teeming with millions of private dramas that are the veritable bread and butter of the novel. With so many great books dedicated to the city’s profound movement, Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin stands out because of its big heart and even bigger honesty.
Along with Denis Johnson and Junot Díaz, McCann—a University of Texas at Austin graduate who credits Texas for jump-starting his career—is one of a handful of authors in American letters today that writes with real sincerity and compassion. Let The Great World Spin avoids the illusions and entrapments of (post-)modern fiction by relying instead on a sort of trained earnestness that makes every page feel surreally genuine. Composed of a series of energetic stories that momentarily diverge only to collide fantastically by the end, McCann’s novel is held together by a singular event: Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers. I could go on for a few thousand words about the structural genius of this literary device—about the visual wonder of this overhead spectacle or the subtle political undertones for our post-9/11 world—but instead, I’ll just say that for a few moments on August 7th, 1974, the city held its breath. (And you, the reader, might too.) The high-wire walk serves as an interlude throughout the novel, leading us from one set of eyes to another as the perspective changes with each new narrator. When their vision isn’t trained on Petit, McCann’s characters are busy living their lives—falling in love, falling out of love, kissing, fighting, running, yelling, and doing just about anything else. There is a radical Irish monk with a penchant for slums and love affairs, a Jewish judge who’s disgusted by the city’s rancor, a hooker/grandmother caught between her life on the streets and her responsibilities to her family, a curious subway rider turned amateur photographer, and a young artist whose sense of guilt pushes her to selflessness.
All of their stories are powerful and believable in the “life can be larger than life” sort of way. McCann weaves them so subtly into the socio-political upheaval of the time—into Watergate and Vietnam—that we are able to focus on the very human drama at the story’s core. There are certainly a few things that might have been better left out or changed. McCann’s fondness for colorful flourishes (“Miró, Miró, on the wall”) can be a little whimsical when set against the heavier plotlines, and the aforementioned shifts in narration can make it challenging to bring some of the characters into focus. But these weaknesses are minor and all but disappear in the power and scope of the story. With so many characters losing and finding each other, and with so much grief and hope and love and redemption on every page, you’ll be hard pressed not to find yourself disappearing into the busy streets of Manhattan or the frenzied energy of the Bronx, chasing after the plain and exceptional truths that make not just for a good, but a great, New York book.