Saturday 23 September 2017

Review: Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Bloomsbury, €8.99

Dermot Bolger

The events of September 11, 2001, ensured that most photographs of the Twin Towers in New York have become emblems of horror. But the first breach of building security occurred on August 7, 1974, when the towers were still uncompleted.

This breach was not an act of terror, however, but one of miraculous wonder, a moment of daring that briefly stilled early morning Manhattan. People could hardly believe they were witnessing a high-wire artist, Philippe Petit, use a balancing pole to walk across a cable bridging the 43-metre gap between the towers at a height of around 426 metres.

No Irish writer since Brian Moore has possessed the chameleon quality needed to enter variant worlds as much as the Dublin-born/New York-based novelist Colum McCann. His 1998 novel, This Side of Brightness, was a tour-de-force social history of modern New York, exploring the labyrinthine netherworld of disused subway tunnels, from their creation by Irish migrant workers to their occupation by down-and-outs.

McCann has now return- ed to this landscape in a remarkably ambitious study of myriad strands of life in that city on the morning when Petit walked between the towers. It is almost an act of reclamation of the history of the towers, making them symbols of wonder and imaginative possibility once again.

McCann's cast of characters is so vast that at times it seems impossible that their lives will link into any pattern. Yet not least of his achievements is that when these links gradually emerge they do not seem contrived. The novel works through a succession of slowly intermingling narratives that form a kaleidoscope of New York lives.

There is Corrigan, a young Irish monk who moves into a grim housing project so that he can befriend the local hookers, despite frequent beatings from their pimps who resent his presence. There is Claire, whose life in a Fifth Avenue penthouse could not be more different but who lives amid another kind of desolation -- the desolation of having lost her son in Vietnam.

There is her husband, Sol, the judge who will be preoccupied that day with the high-profile sentencing of Petit for his unauthorised high-wire walk, but who will make another judgment among the mundane cases filing past him that will have massive ramifications on the lives of all these characters.

There is Tillie -- the hooker he will sentence to prison that day -- and her teenage daughter Jazzlyn, who has fallen into the same squalid life of addiction and prostitution, but who will die later that afternoon in a car accident caused by a drugged avant-garde artist. There is a group of grieving mothers who meet, united by nothing except the loss of their soldier sons. There is the teenage photographer who takes the real-life breath-taking image of Petit walking between the towers with a plane passing overhead. Then there is Petit himself, suspended between the towers and between life and possible death in a ballet of art and daring and lunacy.

These lives form the starting points for McCann's exploration of that city, rooted in the politics and social attitudes of the mid-Seventies and yet shifting forwards and back in time from the Great Depression to the present day. The constantly changing narrators mean that almost as soon as you get to know a character you need to un-know them, as we see the same events or conversations repeated from a different perspective, each equally true and yet each at variance for being viewed across racial and social chasms that may seem on the verge of being bridged but which are as entrenched (if more subtly disguised) today.

At the novel's core is the unlikely, beautifully evoked friendship between Claire, in her penthouse cocoon of luxury and loneliness, and Gloria, a black mother from the housing projects who may have lost three sons to the military but who never loses her bearings and dignity and whose act of impulsive humanity at the end of this book firmly links all of these lives forever. She turns a day of public daring and private tragedy into a fresh start in a gesture that is as heroic as it is unnoticed.

This novel sets out to work on a vast canvas. History may recall August 7, 1974, as Petit's day, but McCann's achievement is to make it belong to those people on the ground below, to make their day equally memorable. His success is a measure of the achievement of an audacious and gifted storyteller.

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