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Everybody Walks a High Wire

Let the Great World Spin

by Colum McCann
Random House, June 2009

On August 7, 1974, aerialist Philippe Petit stretched a cable between the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center and with complete sangfroid walked the cable from one end to the other. He was without a net or a parachute, armed only with his balancing pole, his steel nerves, and his Charlie Chaplin walk. The very next day, August 8, President Richard Nixon announced to the American public, “I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.”

Which of these events from 35 years ago do you suppose would best be remembered by Americans? Overwhelmingly the answer would have to be Philippe Petit’s cable walk. To a large extent that is due to James Marsh’s 2008 film of the event, Man on Wire, in which Petit is cast as himself. (Ironically, Ron Howard’s film Frost/Nixon was also released last year.) To Marsh’s film will shortly be added novelist Colum McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin, in which Philippe Petit once again performs his daring feat over what would later be ground zero.

However, Let the Great World Spin is not about Petit. McCann merely uses Petit’s balletic stroll as a metaphor for something, possibly everything. Possibly it is the daring feat of writing itself, taking off some safe place on a wing and a prayer and hopefully landing safely at another. (How odd now to think of the World Trade Center towers as safe landings!) McCann once said of himself, “I work in a sort of emotional blizzard. Nothing is mapped out and I try to move forward to the place, sometimes blindly. It’s almost a tactile thing, feeling for the right word. Generally I know the first line and the last line, but I know absolutely nothing in between. This is a curious way to work, but to me it becomes an act of discovery—you go forward on a sort of adventure, constantly surprised and often disenchanted. When you reach the end of a story you say to yourself, Jesus what a journey that was!”

Let the Great World Spin is about two Irish brothers who have emigrated to New York, much as McCann himself has done. They are John and Ciaran Corrigan, and the world stretches between them like a cable between two buildings. John Corrigan is the visionary, the religious one, and he seems to have monopolized the family name, since everyone else, even his brother, calls him Corrigan. Even as a child in Sandymount, on the Irish coast south of Dublin (where Stephen Dedalus meanders in James Joyce’s Ulysses), Corrigan is drawn to the poor and the dispossessed. Drinking by 14, giving away his clothes to derelicts, Corrigan speaks of doing God’s work. “What Corrigan wanted was a fully believable God, one you could find in the grime of the everyday. The comfort he could find from the hard, cold truth—the filth, the war—the poverty—was that life could be capable of small beauties.” When his Jesuit order ships him off to New York, Corrigan goes reluctantly, imagining New York to be too mannered, too antiseptic. What had he been reading?

In New York, Corrigan’s search for God among the “grime of the everyday” takes him to the Bronx Projects, where he becomes a housekeeper for prostitutes. He comes as a missionary, preaching the gospel in order to save souls. He provides them with a safe house in the form of a spare apartment, where they can use the bathroom and come in for a drink of water. He serves them without judgment, even when he gets beaten up for it. It is here that Ciaran finds his brother: in a row of high-rise tenements behind a chain-link fence topped with razor wire. He could see the expressway, “the light streak of cars zipping above. Below, by the underpass, a long line of women. Cars and trucks were pulling into the shadows.”

What has any of this to do with Philippe Petit? For one thing, the moment itself. When Petit is arrested and brought into court, one of Corrigan’s prostitutes is awaiting trial for robbing a john: Tillie Henderson, alias Miss Bliss, alias Puzzle, alias Rose P., alias Sweetcakes. She is also a heroin addict, but she has become one of Corrigan’s friends, along with her daughter Jazzlyn or Jazz, who herself has a child. They stroll for a living, and Corrigan is part of their support system.

McCann Visits Buffalo for James Joyce Conference

Novelist Colum McCann, most recently author of Zoli and Dancer, the latter a fictionalized life of dancer Rudolf Nureyev, will be in Buffalo on June 12 and 13 to read from his work as part of the series of events surrounding the North American James Joyce Conference, “Eire on the Erie.” On Friday, June 12, at 8:30pm, he will read at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in a Gusto at the Gallery program titled “Everything in This Country Must,” which includes the film Everything in this Country Must (2005) by Gary McKendry and Colum McCann. This is a free public event. On Saturday afternoon at 3pm, McCann reads from his forthcoming novel Let the Great World Spin in the ballroom of the downtown Hyatt Regency Hotel (2 Fountain Plaza, Buffalo). Both events include a book signing, and the Saturday event will be followed by an interview with Mark Shechner.

And then there is the tightrope walk of life itself. Everyone is walking a wire over a vast abyss, including Corrigan. Yet these are not joyless lives. Mean, nasty, brutal, and short maybe, but hardly joyless. “Hooking is born in me,” says Tillie. “That’s not exaggeration. I never wanted no square job.” Tillie Henderson remembers the man who took her to the Sherry-Netherlands for a week and read to her the poems of Rumi, the great Persian love poet. He had asked her to read him a poem about the marketplace. She remembers, “It was a poem where a man buys a carpet in the marketplace, and it’s a perfect carpet, without a flaw, so it brings him all sorts of woe ’n’ shit.”

The poems of Rumi won’t save Tillie Henderson. Corrigan fares no better. He has no magic, just a simple pious heart. He is a savior without miracles, and when he and Jazzlyn are killed in a car crash on the way home from the courthouse, the point is driven home: Nobody is immune. “Death by drowning,” the book tells us, “death by snakebite, death by mortar, death by bullet wound, death by wooden stake, death by tunnel rat, death by bazooka…”

There is even a second plot set in a minor key among the uptown middle class, in whose townhouses women meet to talk about their sons who have died in Vietnam. It is a reversal of expectation that the life of the stroll is played in a major key and the middle class interludes are played in a minor, but that is McCann’s way of turning the world upside down for us.

Philippe Petit does not fall; Richard Nixon falls, and nobody notices. The book reminds me of Peter Breughel’s famous painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, in which we see a farmer tilling his field, a shepherd tending his flock, a ship resting at sea, and off in the distance a splash faintly seen. Nixon’s splash is scarcely seen. The great world spins all the same, quite without Icarus. Foreground in McCann’s novel is the fall of Tillie Henderson, alias Miss Bliss, alias Puzzle, alias Rose P., alias Sweetcakes. Her magnificent song of herself, which takes up 38 pages in the heart of the book, is her glorious and devastating Ophelia speech, her Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.

And what of the other Corrigan brother, Ciaran? He is the watcher, the outsider, the patient gleaner of impressions who, one imagines, will turn all the bewilderment into dazzling, wonderful, waterfalls of prose. Did I mention that Colum McCann is a marvelous writer? Well, there it is.

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