Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Let the Great World Spin

A man towers above Manhattan on a tight wire sprung between the World Trade Center's north and south buildings. Pedestrians pause in the street, taxi cab drivers pull over, and office workers lean out their windows, gazing at the man who dared such a feat.

So begins Colum McCann's National Book Award Winner, Let the Great World Spin.

It's August 1974, and in the environs of New York other tales unwind, mostly tales of woe --- loneliness, sadness, fear and pain.

Irish monk Corrigan finds himself living deep in the projects of the Bronx, befriending prostitutes, entertaining the elderly at a nearby hospital, and welcoming his brother, fresh from Ireland.

In a Park Avenue apartment, five mothers from distinctly different backgrounds gather together to mourn the losses of their sons in Vietnam.

An artist, on her way home from an unsuccessful exhibition, clips the bumper of a van, causes a horrific auto accident, and flees the scene.

And so it goes. [My apologies to Kurt Vonnegut.]

In this novel about New York in the mid 1970s, McCann manages to give his reader quite the story of those whose lives have "spun" out of their control and into others -- all on the same day as the "artistic crime of the century." McMann delivers his story from the different voices of his characters --- all with the absence of the good, old fashioned quotation marks.

In one powerful narration by Corrigan's brother, the images of one brother obliviously driving a car while the other brother lies critically injured in the hospital came across chilling in its force:
"They cleared the room while they took X-rays. I pulled in under the bridge where I had spent most of the summer. A few girls were scattered around that night --the ones who had missed the raid. Some swallows scissored our from under the rafters. Seeding the sky. They didn't call out to me. My brother, in Metropolitan Hospital, still breathing. I was supposed to work in Queens, but I crossed the road instead. I had no idea what was happening. The blood swelling in his lungs. Towards the tiny bar. The jukebox blared. The Four Tops. Intravenous lines. Martha and the Vandellas. Oxygen masks. Jimi Hendrix. The doctors did not wear gloves. They stabilized him. Gave him a shot of morphine. Shot it right into his muscle. .. They found a religious medal in his pocket of his pants. I left the bar and crossed the late-night boulevard..."

Something about the staccato style of this passage -- the stacking up of images --- one brother alive and doing his life while the other fights for his --- was so original and effective in this setting before cell phones and other means of technology bring "us" quickly to the scene of emergency or tragedy.

As one critic calls McCann's narrative ability, "gritty and lyrical," the novel, in my humble, opinion, is a not miss for the serious reader of literature.

Let the Great World Spin
is a fine work of fiction -- perhaps schools of literature on the collegiate level shall discover it and put it in their courses on the American post-modern novel to be analyzed, admired, and examined.

I'd like to do it. I'd love to teach this book to a class of English majors.

Except not really.

Been there. Done that.

But I might like to take a class that offered it.

Except not really.

I'd rather you take the class or read the book and tell me about it. :)


  1. God, I finally came up with your next career. You should hire out as a paper grader, you know, will grade for food. Maybe barter your skills. Never know when a teacher might own a mountain house available for a long weekend or a pig, ready for slaughter. The possibilities are endless!!

  2. So glad there's a book like this! The "Man on Wire" documentary fascinated me (and inspired me to take some really stupid risks with big pay offs, which was the point, right?). A man setting up a tight rope between the World Trade Center towers is such a good metaphor. I'd love to see how the book uses it to talk about lives spinning out of control.