Friday, September 3, 2010

Burning from the Inside Out

‘Not in vain the distance beacons. Forward, forward let us range,

Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.’

—from “Locksley Hall” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

For three weeks or more, Colum McCann’s novel, Let the Great World Spin sat prominently on my reading stack untouched. Despite a couple of encouraging reviews, I made a late start on the book. When I finally did pick it up and begin reading, pretty much everything else faded into background while I raced through the book’s 349 pages. This was my first time to read anything by Colum McCann, and now feel I will have to go back and read his other books. Let the Great World Spin is the 2009 National Book Award winner and the author’s seventh book.

McCann stated that in his initial concept, he wanted to write a story built around what he calls the ‘democracy of storytelling,’ a story that crosses borders, boundaries and gender. To accomplish that he begins his book at the height of the World Trade Center twin towers in 1974 and moves from there to the lowest depths of the city, from both a physical and human perspective. Let the Great World Spin is built around the interconnectedness of ten disparate lives: an Irish priest, two street hookers, young artists fueled by cocaine, mothers mourning sons lost in Vietnam and a judge in his Centre Street courtroom.

The book begins on August 7, 1974, the day that Philippe Petit walked a tight rope between the north and south towers of the World Trade Center. That feat and the preparation it involved play a part in the story, but what we see is that the lives of McCann’s characters mirror this high-wire walk in the sense of courage and the uncertainty of outcome. All of the characters in the book are in one way or another balancing on a high-wire of their own.

Petit’s high-wire act is the event that triggers the story. Though the action in McCann’s telling does not follow a strictly linear progression, we come to see how the parts ultimately fit together in a logical sequence.

Petit walks his high-wire, is arrested, charged and taken to court. The judge is bound by an overloaded system and is forced to rush through his handling of two mother-daughter hookers on a petty larceny charge before hearing the case of the daring funambulist. The daughter of the two hookers is released, thus triggering the next series of events, which sooner or later impact the lives of the other characters. But as noted before, these things do not unfold in a straight line. We meet and learn about the ten characters chapter by chapter, gradually coming to understand how they are, or will be connected.

One of the strengths of this novel is the writer’s remarkable skill in giving an authentic voice to each of his characters. The idiom rings true in each one, and in the street hookers Tillie and Jazzlyn especially, McCann has created a fascinating portrait of life on the Bronx streets under the Major Deegan Expressway. Following is an X-rated sample of Tillie’s street rap…

‘When I was seventeen I had a body that Adam woulda dropped Eve for. Hot-potato time. It was prime, no lie. Nothing in the wrong place. I had legs a hundred miles long and a booty to die for. Adam woulda said to Eve, Eve I'm leaving you, honey, and Jesus himself woulda been in the background saying, Adam, you're one lucky motherfucker.’

I have heard some say that Let the Great World Spin has its disappointments, that the long back stories have no pay off. And I will agree with Publishers Weekly’s opinion that the John Corrigan Irish priest character seems a little otherworldly and not always as real as those around him. But in spite of that criticism, McCann succeeds in giving his characters—even the Irish priest—a quality he calls burning from the inside out.

Put this one on your reading list.


  1. Always an interesting writer. First thing I read of his was THIS SIDE OF BRIGHTNESS, about sandhogs, workers at the turn of the century, digging the train tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan.

  2. Interesting review. I'm going to look for this book.


About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America