Amazon Best of the Month, June 2009: Colum McCann has worked some exquisite magic with Let the Great World Spin, conjuring a novel of electromagnetic force that defies gravity. It's August of 1974, a summer "hot and serious and full of death and betrayal," and Watergate and the Vietnam War make the world feel precarious. A stunned hush pauses the cacophonous universe of New York City as a man on a cable walks (repeatedly) between World Trade Center towers. This extraordinary, real-life feat by French funambulist Philippe Petit becomes the touchstone for stories that briefly submerge you in ten varied and intense lives--a street priest, heroin-addicted hookers, mothers mourning sons lost in war, young artists, a Park Avenue judge. All their lives are ordinary and unforgettable, overlapping at the edges, occasionally converging. And when they coalesce in the final pages, the moment hums with such grace that its memory might tighten your throat weeks later. You might find yourself paused, considering the universe of lives one city contains in any slice of time, each of us a singular world, sometimes passing close enough to touch or collide, to birth a new generation or kill it, sending out ripples, leaving residue, an imprint, marking each other, our city, the very air--compassionately or callously, unable to see all the damage we do or heal. And most of us stumbling, just trying not to trip, or step in something awful.
But then someone does something extraordinary, like dancing on a cable strung 110 stories in the air, or imagining a magnificent novel that lifts us up for a sky-scraping, dizzy glimpse of something greater: the sordid grandeur of this whirling world, "bigger than its buildings, bigger than its inhabitants." --Mari Malcolm
Amazon Exclusive: Frank McCourt on Let the Great World Spin
Frank McCourt (1930-2009) was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Irish immigrant parents, grew up in Limerick, Ireland, and returned to America in 1949. For thirty years he taught in New York City high schools. His first book, Angela's Ashes, won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the L.A. Times Book Award. In 2006, he won the prestigious Ellis Island Family Heritage Award for Exemplary Service in the Field of the Arts and the United Federation of Teachers John Dewey Award for Excellence in Education. McCourt also wrote Tis and Teacher Man, both memoirs. Read his exclusive Amazon guest review of Let the Great World Spin:
Now I worry about Colum McCann. What is he going to do after this blockbuster groundbreaking heartbreaking symphony of a novel? No novelist writing of New York has climbed higher, dived deeper.
Trust me, this is the sort of book that you will take off your shelf over and over again as the years go along. It’s a story of the early 1970s, but it’s also the story of our present times. And it is, in many ways, a story of a moment of lasting redemption even in the face of all the evidence.
There are dozens of intimate tales and threads at the core of Let the Great World Spin. On one level there’s the tightrope walker making his way across the World Trade Center towers. But as the novel goes along the “walker” becomes less and less of a focal point and we begin to care more about the people down below, on the pavement, in the ordinary throes of their existence. There’s an Irish monk living in the Bronx projects. There’s a Park Avenue mother in mourning for her dead son, who was blown up in the cafés of Saigon. There are the original computer hackers who "visit" New York in an early echo of the Internet. There’s an artist who has learn to return to the simplicity of love. And then--in possibly the book’s wildest and most ambitious section--there’s a Bronx hooker who has brought up her children in “the house that horse built”--“horse” of course being the heroin that was ubiquitous in the '70s.
All the voices feel realized and authentic and the writing floats along. This was my city back then--and now. McCann has written about New York before, but never quite as piercingly or as provocatively as this. This is fiction that gets the heart thumping.
The stories are interweaved so that it is one story, on one day, in one city, and yet it is also a history of the present time. In Let the Great World Spin, you can’t ignore the overtones for today: suffice it to say that the novel is held together by an act of redemption and beauty. I didn’t want to stop turning the pages.
I’m really not sure what McCann will do after this, but this is a great New York book, not just for New Yorkers but for anyone who walks any sort of tightrope at all. And yes, it doesn’t surprise me that it takes an Irishman to capture the heart of the city... --Frank McCourt
(Photo © Kit DeFever)
From Publishers Weekly
McCann's sweeping new novel hinges on Philippe Petit's illicit 1974 high-wire walk between the twin towers. It is the aftermath, in which Petit appears in the courtroom of Judge Solomon Soderberg, that sets events into motion. Solomon, anxious to get to Petit, quickly dispenses with a petty larceny involving mother/daughter hookers Tillie and Jazzlyn Henderson. Jazzlyn is let go, but is killed on the way home in a traffic accident. Also killed is John Corrigan, a priest who was giving her a ride. The other driver, an artist named Blaine, drives away, and the next day his wife, Lara, feeling guilty, tries to check on the victims, leading her to meet John's brother, with whom she'll form an enduring bond. Meanwhile, Solomon's wife, Claire, meets with a group of mothers who have lost sons in Vietnam. One of them, Gloria, lives in the same building where John lived, which is how Claire, taking Gloria home, witnesses a small salvation. McCann's dogged, DeLillo-like ambition to show American magic and dread sometimes comes unfocused—John Corrigan in particular never seems real—but he succeeds in giving us a high-wire performance of style and heart. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From The Washington Post
From The Washington Post's Book World/washingtonpost.com Reviewed by Mike Peed As the narrator of Colum McCann's new novel sees it, Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974 triggered a quietude generally unknown to New Yorkers. "Those who saw him hushed," McCann writes. "It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful." In "Let the Great World Spin," Petit's stunt acts as a centerline on which McCann hangs the stories of a dozen spiritually disheveled characters, each searching for an alcove of silence in a clamorous city. A recovering drug addict wonders if Petit, famed also for his juggling, can keep aloft the shards of her broken existence. The mother of a soldier killed in Vietnam condemns the high-wire act as a reckless offense against life's sanctity. Only to an indigent Catholic monk, wrestling with a cryptic God, is the spectacle simply the most beautiful thing in the world. But unlike Rudolf Nureyev, who was the focus of McCann's 2003 novel, "Dancer," Petit hovers on the edges, a spectral force employed to accentuate both the splendor that humans can create as well as the muck that constitutes our quotidian lives. McCann's forlorn cast seeks to empower themselves, to swap the muck for the splendor. The author is not known to cut narrow slices, and here he wants to glorify life's interconnectedness. It works like this: Corrigan, the Catholic monk, leaves his native Ireland for the Bronx to labor among "the whores, the hustlers, the hopeless." His brother follows, and when Corrigan dies in a car accident, the brother befriends the addict involved in his death. She seeks out an imprisoned hooker whom Corrigan tried to help and whose grandchildren are being raised by a neighbor. That woman lost a son in Vietnam and commiserates with another grieving mother, this one an Upper East Side lioness, who, as it happens, is married to the judge who sentences both the hooker and Petit. McCann can craft penetrating phrases -- a smoker resembles "his last cigarette, ashen and ready to fall" -- but his theme is stale, and the exhaustive back stories he gives each character never pay off. McCann relies on streams of short sentences that can seem lazy and distracted. "Pureness moving" describes a break-dancer 140 pages before the exact phrase is used again to describe Petit. Perhaps the repetition is deliberate, but, either way, the line doesn't land a punch. By book's end, McCann is writing of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, the width of his canvas enhancing neither the plot nor our concern for it.
Copyright 2009, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.
From Bookmarks Magazine
McCann's reputation is that of a writer's writer, as in Dancer
, his risky fictionalized biography of ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev. In much the same way that Jay McInerney and Don DeLillo have become standard bearers for social commentary in American fiction, McCann writes about particular times and places -- "the collision point of stories" -- with a sharp eye and a genuine empathy that allows his fiction to resound with the power of memoir. In Let the Great World Spin
, the lives of his characters mirror Petit's courageous, outrageous walk -- paths set, outcomes less certain. Although widely praised, a few critics commented that the stories-within-this-story were uneven -- not to mention mostly depressing. But in the end, most reviewers opined that the novel's day-in-the-life frame calls to mind James Joyce's Ulysses
; the words and the ideas, though, are all McCann's.
*Starred Review* After the rigors of Zoli (2007), his historical tale of Romani life, best-selling literary novelist McCann allows himself more artistic freedom in his shimmering, shattering fifth novel. It begins on August 7, 1974, when New Yorkers are stopped in their tracks by the sight of a man walking between the towers of the World Trade Center. Yes, it’s Philippe Petit, the subject of the Academy Award–winning documentary Man on Wire and one of McCann’s many intense and valiant characters. The cast also includes two Irish brothers: Corrigan, a radical monk, and Ciaran, who follows him to the blasted Bronx, where he encounters resilient prostitute Tillie and her spirited daughter Jazzlyn. Gloria lives in the same housing project, and she befriends Claire of Park Avenue as they mourn the deaths of their sons in Vietnam. McCann’s hallucinatory descriptions of a great city tattooed and besmirched with graffiti, blood, and drugs in the midst of a financial freefall are eerie in their edgy beauty, chilling reminders of how quickly civilization unravels. Here, too, are portals onto war, the justice system, and the dawning of the cyber age. In McCann’s wise and elegiac novel of origins and consequences, each of his finely drawn, unexpectedly connected characters balances above an abyss, evincing great courage with every step. --Donna Seaman
"This is a gorgeous book, multilayered and deeply felt, and it's a damned lot of fun to read, too. Leave it to an Irishman to write one of the greatest-ever novels about New York. There's so much passion and humor and pure lifeforce on every page of Let the Great World Spin
that you'll find yourself giddy, dizzy, overwhelmed."?Dave Eggers, editor of McSweeney's and author of What Is the What
"In his own gritty and lyrical voice, Colum McCann has lifted up a handful of souls to the light in this big-hearted, adroit and probing novel, and brought forth a spectrum of the painful, the beautiful and the unexpected."?Amy Bloom, author of Away
"Every character ... grabs you by the throat and makes you care. McCann's dazzling polyphony walks the high wire and succeeds triumphantly."?Emma Donoghue, author of The Sealed Letter
"What a book! Complex and captivating ... a very sensual novel."?John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
"Now I worry about Colum McCann.? What is he going to do after this blockbuster groundbreaking heartbreaking symphony of a novel? No novelist writing of New York has climbed higher, dived deeper."?Frank McCourt, author of Angela's Ashes
"With Philippe Petit's breathless 1974 tightrope walk between the uncompleted WTC towers at its axis,? Colum McCann?offers us a lyrical cycloramic high-low portrait of New York City?in its days of burning; Park Avenue matrons, Bronx junkies, Center Street judges, downtown artists and their uptown subway-tagging brethren, street priests, weary cops, wearier hookers, grieving mothers of an Asian war freshly put to bed; a masterful chorus of voices all obliviously connected by the most ephemeral vision; a pin-dot of a man walking on air 110 stories above their hea... --This text refers to the Kindle Edition edition.
“This is a gorgeous book, multilayered and deeply felt, and it’s a damned lot of fun to read, too. Leave it to an Irishman to write one of the greatest-ever novels about New York. There’s so much passion and humor and pure lifeforce on every page of Let the Great World Spin
that you’ll find yourself giddy, dizzy, overwhelmed.”–Dave Eggers, editor of McSweeney’s and author of What Is the What
“In his own gritty and lyrical voice, Colum McCann has lifted up a handful of souls to the light in this big-hearted, adroit and probing novel, and brought forth a spectrum of the painful, the beautiful and the unexpected.”–Amy Bloom, author of Away
“Every character … grabs you by the throat and makes you care. McCann's dazzling polyphony walks the high wire and succeeds triumphantly.”–Emma Donoghue, author of The Sealed Letter
“What a book! Complex and captivating … a very sensual novel.”–John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
“Now I worry about Colum McCann. What is he going to do after this blockbuster groundbreaking heartbreaking symphony of a novel? No novelist writing of New York has climbed higher, dived deeper.”–Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes
“With Philippe Petit’s breathless 1974 tightrope walk between the uncompleted WTC towers at its axis, Colum McCann offers us a lyrical cycloramic high-low portrait of New York City in its days of burning; Park Avenue matrons, Bronx junkies, Center Street judges, downtown artists and their uptown subway-tagging brethren, street priests, weary cops, wearier hookers, grieving mothers of an Asian war freshly put to bed; a masterful chorus of voices all obliviously connected by the most ephemeral vision; a pin-dot of a man walking on air 110 stories above their heads.”–Richard Price, author of Lush Life
“Stunning… [an] elegiac glimpse of hope…It’s a novel rooted firmly in time and place. It vividly captures New York at its worst and best. But it transcends all that. In the end, it’s a novel about families – the ones we’re born into and the ones we make for ourselves.”–USA Today
“The first great 9/11 novel...Let the Great World Spin
stands as a kind of corrective to Don DeLillo’s remorselessly precise and punishing Falling Man…
It is a pre-9/11 novel that delivers the sense that so many of the 9/11 novels have missed: We are all dancing on the wire of history, and even on solid ground we breathe the thinnest of air.”–Esquire
“Mesmerizing…A Joycean look at the lives of New Yorkers changed by a single act on a single day….Colum McCann’s marvelously rich novel…weaves a portrait of a city and a moment, dizzyingly satisfying to read and difficult to put down.”–Seattle Times
“Vibrantly whole… With a series of spare, gorgeously wrought vignettes, Colum McCann brings 1970s New York to life…And as always, McCann’s heart-stoppingly simple descriptions wow. A-”–Entertainment Weekly
“An act of pure bravado, dizzying proof that to keep your balance you need to know how to fall.”–O, The Oprah Magazine
“Books You Can’t Put Down” Summer Reading List Selection
“The Great New York Novel. With echoes of Wolfe, Doctorow, and DeLillo, Colum McCann’s mesmerizing Let the Great World Spin
is a prophetic portrait of New York City in the summer of 1974…A fine introduction to a major talent. It is one of the year’s best novels.”–Taylor Antrim, The Daily Beast
“McCann…both resurrects and redeems the horrors of Sept. 11, creating a metaphorical landscape of human endurance in the face of unspeakable tragedy…. This is McCann's gift, finding grace in grief and magic in the mundane.”–San Francisco Chronicle
, Top Shelf: Recommended Reading Selection
“A shimmering, shattering novel. In McCann’s wise and elegiac novel of origins and consequences, each of his finely drawn, unexpectedly connected characters balances above an abyss, evincing great courage with every step.”–Booklist, s
“Colum McCann has worked some exquisite magic with Let the Great World Spin
, conjuring a novel of electromagnetic force that defies gravity...A magnificent novel…hums with such grace that its memory might tighten your throat weeks later.”–The Courier-Dispatch
, Louisville KY
“If William Butler Yeats and Allen Ginsberg had written a novel together, it would be this sad, this deep, this urban, this manic and this highly charged.…. McCann’s power – his language, his human understanding, his vision–holds us in an embrace as encompassing as the great world itself.”–Buffalo News
“Beautiful, heady…As worn down as McCann's characters are, they each struggle heroically against life's downward pull, and that's what makes the novel so powerfully uplifting.”–Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Seductive [with a] propulsive pace…This is a New York teeming with leathery men and vicious beauties. The city itself is a stalled machine. People don't arrive here; they crawl into it. McCann's style is lyrical and sharp, as he expertly weaves together the lives of a handful of seemingly disparate characters.”–The Oregonian
“If major writers like Don DeLillo and Jay McInerney failed to capture the diversity of voices affected by tragedy in their early attempts at Sept. 11 novels, McCann succeeds…. In the end, McCann sees hope in a country that has, like his own narrative, recognized the voices of all its people. Hope in recognizing our flaws as a nation. And hope, despite the war we’re still in, of learning from our mistakes.”–Kansas City Star
“A sprawling, lyrical new book…Colum McCann [is a] novelist you should know a lot more about.”–New York
“McCann masterfully delineates each character’s voice… He lends a forgiving tenderness that invigorates the timeless notion that we are not really all the different under the skin, each of us longing for love, for beauty, for those connections that will quell our loneliness.”–Bookpage