Let the Great World Spin: A Novel

By Colum McCann
Binding:Hardcover
Publisher:Random House, (6/23/2009)
Language:English



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In the dawning light of a late-summer morning, the people of lower Manhattan stand hushed, staring up in disbelief at the Twin Towers. It is August 1974, and a mysterious tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter mile above the ground. In the streets below, a slew of ordinary lives become extraordinary in bestselling novelist Colum McCann’s stunningly intricate portrait of a city and its people.

Let the Great World Spin
is the critically acclaimed author’s most ambitious novel yet: a dazzlingly rich vision of the pain, loveliness, mystery, and promise of New York City in the 1970s.

Corrigan, a radical young Irish monk, struggles with his own demons as he lives among the prostitutes in the middle of the burning Bronx. A group of mothers gather in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn their sons who died in Vietnam, only to discover just how much divides them even in grief. A young artist finds herself at the scene of a hit-and-run that sends her own life careening sideways. Tillie, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenage daughter, determined not only to take care of her family but to prove her own worth.
Elegantly weaving together these and other seemingly disparate lives, McCann’s powerful allegory comes alive in the unforgettable voices of the city’s people, unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the “artistic crime of the century.” A sweeping and radical social novel, Let the Great World Spin captures the spirit of America in a time of transition, extraordinary promise, and, in hindsight, heartbreaking innocence. Hailed as a “fiercely original talent” (San Francisco Chronicle), award-winning novelist McCann has delivered a triumphantly American masterpiece that awakens in us a sense of what the novel can achieve, confront, and even heal.
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E's Reads's thoughts on "Let the Great World Spin: A Novel"
updated on:6/22/2012



Mildly Unleashable


"Let the Great World Spin: A Novel"
By Colum McCann

Average Rating:
Mildly Unleashable
2.00 out of 5 (1 Clubie's ratings)


The Gentleman
The Gentleman
By Forrest Leo

 
 
 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.
 
 
1. Let the Great World Spin brings us into the lives of a dozen different fictional characters from many walks of life, from Park Avenue mothers to street-walking prostitutes to computer hackers to radical monks. Why does Colum McCann embrace such a diverse tapestry of characters? Is it reflective of the all-encompassing nature of the city?

 2) The novel tales place almost exclusively in New York, but could it have taken place in any other city in the world? Is there an “everyman” quality to the characters? Or does the novel need New York to make it “spin”? 

3) The “walker” is suggested by Philippe Petit, who actually walked a tightrope across the World Trade Center towers in August 1974. However, McCann never uses his name, except in the acknowledgments, and the tightrope walker in the novel remains largely anonymous. The drama of the walk gets superseded by the drama of the ordinary lives. Is McCann suggesting that the ordinary gesture is as important as what was once called “the artistic crime of the twentieth century”? Is the ordinary life (Corrigan’s, Lara’s, etc.) as important as the grand public life? 

4) The characters are woven together, but they do not realize how close they are to one another. What is the web that holds them together? Is this a genuine reflection of life? Are any of the characters not tied together? What, in your opinion, happens to the phone phreakers? 

5) In the chapter titled “This Is the House That Horse Built,” we get an intimate glimpse of the life of a New York prostitute in the 1970s. Do you think Tillie achieves grace despite the circumstances of her life? 

6) If you were to have one character tell this story, who would you choose? What does that choice reflect in us, the readers? Would the novel still be able to achieve a kaleidoscopic viewpoint? 

7) Most of the novel takes place when the World Trade Center was being completed in 1974, when liberation theology was forging an identity (Corrigan), when artists were pushing frontiers (Lara), when the Internet was being born (the phone phreakers), when the country was learning to deal with the wounds of Vietnam (Claire/ Joshua). Is the novel more about creation than destruction? 

8) The book is structured in four parts, the first three held together by the tightrope. In your opinion, are all of the characters walking a tightrope? Is the “art” of their lives as precise as the “art” of the tightrope walker? 

9) McCann uses a real photograph of a plane going across the sky while the tightrope walker is still in midair. He attributes the byline to a fictional character, Fernando Yunqué Marcano who was introduced in the chapter “Tag.” What effect does this have on the reader? What does McCann want to achieve by interweaving fact and fiction? 

10) Both Corrigan and Jazzlyn—two of the main towers of the novel—die in the first chapter. Why are these particular characters chosen for the fall? Much of the rest of the book is spent building their lives up, getting to know them through other people. They are referenced and described, yet we never hear about them in the first person (except in reported speech). Their minds and voices are a curious presence and simultaneous absence. Why does McCann depict these characters in the third person? 

11) Adelita says: “The thing about love is that we come alive in bodies not our own” (page 275). What does she mean by this? 12) What does Jaslyn discover at the end of the novel, when she goes to visit the aging Claire? 

13) McCann tells us in the Author’s Note that the title is inspired by a nineteenth-century English poem that in turn was inspired by sixth-century Arabic poetry. Now he uses it for a twenty-firstcentury American novel. What connections is the author making? 


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Amazon.com Review
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.



From Booklist
*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



Review
"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, oprah.com’s “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, starred

“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 Magazine

“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

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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some thought at first that it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it might be the perfect city joke–stand around and point upward, until people gathered, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were staring upward at nothing at all, like waiting for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag. But the longer they watched, the surer they were. He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped dark against the gray of the morning. A window washer maybe. Or a construction worker. Or a jumper.

Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky.

He could only be seen at certain angles so that the watchers had to pause at street corners, find a gap between buildings, or meander from the shadows to get a view unobstructed by cornicework, gargoyles, balustrades, roof edges. None of them had yet made sense of the line strung at his feet from one tower to the other. Rather, it was the manshape that held them there, their necks craned, torn between the promise of doom and the disappointment of the ordinary. It was the dilemma of the watchers: they didn’t want to wait around for nothing at all, some idiot standing on the precipice of the towers, but they didn’t want to miss the moment either, if he slipped, or got arrested, or dove, arms stretched.

Around the watchers, the city still made its everyday noises. Car horns. Garbage trucks. Ferry whistles. The thrum of the subway. The M22 bus pulled in against the sidewalk, braked, sighed down into a pothole. A flying chocolate wrapper touched against a fire hydrant. Taxi doors slammed. Bits of trash sparred in the darkest reaches of the alleyways. Sneakers found their sweetspots. The leather of briefcases rubbed against trouserlegs. A few umbrella tips clinked against the pavement. Revolving doors pushed quarters of conversation out into the street. But the watchers could have taken all the sounds and smashed them down into a single noise and still they wouldn’t have heard much at all: even when they cursed, it was done quietly, reverently. They found themselves in small groups together beside the traffic lights on the corner of Church and Dey; gathered under the awning of Sam’s barbershop; in the doorway of Charlie’s Audio; a tight little theater of men and women against the railings of St. Paul’s Chapel; elbowing for space at the windows of the Woolworth Building. Lawyers. Elevator operators. Doctors. Cleaners. Prep chefs. Diamond merchants. Fish sellers.

Sad- jeaned whores. All of them reassured by the presence of one another.

Stenographers. Traders. Deliveryboys. Sandwichboard men. Cardsharks. Con Ed. Ma Bell. Wall Street. A locksmith in his van on the corner of Dey and Broadway. A bike messenger lounging against a lamppost on West. A red- faced rummy out looking for an early- morning pour. From the Staten Island Ferry they glimpsed him. From the meatpacking warehouses on the West Side. From the new high- rises in Battery Park. From the breakfast carts down on Broadway. From the plaza below. From the towers themselves.

Sure, there were some who ignored the fuss, who didn’t want to be bothered. It was seven forty- seven in the morning and they were too jacked up for anything but a desk, a pen, a telephone. Up they came from the subway stations, from limousines, off city buses, crossing the street at a clip, refusing the prospect of a gawk. Another day, another dolor. But as they passed the little clumps of commotion they began to slow down.
Some stopped altogether, shrugged, turned nonchalantly, walked to the

corner, bumped up against the watchers, went to the tips of their toes, gazed over the crowd, and then introduced themselves with a Wow or aGee- whiz or a Jesus H. Christ.

The man above remained rigid, and yet his mystery was mobile. He stood beyond the railing of the observation deck of the south tower–at any moment he might just take off.

Below him, a single pigeon swooped down from the top floor of the Federal Office Building, as if anticipating the fall. The movement caught the eyes of some watchers and they followed the gray flap against the small of the standing man. The bird shot from one eave to another, and it was then the watchers noticed that they had been joined by others at the windows of offices, where blinds were being lifted and a few glass panes labored upward. All that could be seen was a pair of elbows or the end of a shirtsleeve, or an arm garter, but then it was joined by a head, or an odd- looking pair of hands above it, lifting the frame even higher. In the windows of nearby skyscrapers, figures came to look out–men in shirtsleeves and women in bright blouses, wavering in the glass like funhouse apparitions.

Higher still, a weather helicopter executed a dipping turn over the Hudson–a curtsy to the fact that the summer day was going to be cloudy and cool anyway–and the rotors beat a rhythm over the warehouses of the West Side. At first the helicopter looked lopsided in its advance, and a small side window was slid open as if the machine were looking for air. A lens appeared in the open window. It caught a brief flash of light. After a moment the helicopter corrected beautifully and spun across the expanse. Some cops on the West Side Highway switched on their misery lights, swerved fast off the exit ramps, making the morning all the more magnetic.

A charge entered the air all around the watchers and–now that the day had been made official by sirens–there was a chatter among them, their balance set on edge, their calm fading, and they turned to one another and began to speculate, would he jump, would he fall, would he tiptoe along the ledge, did he work there, was he solitary, was he a decoy, was he wearing a uniform, did anyone have binoculars? Perfect strangers touched one another on the elbows. Swearwords went between them, and whispers that there’d been a botched robbery, that he was some sort of cat burglar, that he’d taken hostages, he was an Arab, a Jew, a Cypriot, an IRA man, that he was really just a publicity stunt, a corporate scam, Drink more Coca- Cola, Eat more Fritos, Smoke more Parliaments, Spray more Lysol, Love more Jesus. Or that he was a protester and he was going to hang a slogan, he would slide it from the towerledge, leave it there to flutter in the breeze, like some giant piece of sky laundry–nixon out now! remember ’nam, sam! independence for indochina!–and then someone said that maybe he was a hang glider or a parachutist, and all the others laughed, but they were perplexed by the cable at his feet, and the rumors began again, a collision of curse and whisper, augmented by an increase in sirens, which got their hearts pumping even more, and the helicopter found a purchase near the west side of the towers, while down in the foyer of the World Trade Center the cops were sprinting across the marble floor, and the undercovers were whipping out badges from beneath their shirts, and the fire trucks were pulling into the plaza, and the redblue dazzled the glass, and a flatbed truck arrived with a cherry picker, its fat wheels bouncing over the curb, and someone laughed as the picker kiltered sideways, the driver looking up, as if the basket might reach all that sad huge way, and the security guards were shouting into their walkie- talkies, and the whole August morning was blown wide open, and the watchers stood rooted, there was no going anywhere for a while, the voices rose to a crescendo, all sorts of accents, a babel, until a small redheaded man in the Home Title Guarantee Company on Church Street lifted the sash of his office window, placed his elbows on the sill, took a deep breath, leaned out, and roared into the distance: Do it, asshole! There was a dip before the laughter, a second before it sank in among the watchers, a reverence for the man’s irreverence, because secretly that’s what so many of them felt–Do it, for chrissake! Do it!–and then a torrent of chatter was released, a call- and- response, and it seemed to ripple all the way from the windowsill down to the sidewalk and along the cracked pavement to the corner of Fulton, down the block along Broadway, where it zigzagged down John, hooked around to Nassau, and went on, a domino of laughter, but with an edge to it, a longing, an awe, and many of the watchers realized with a shiver that no matter what they said, they really wanted to witness a great fall, see someone arc downward all that distance, to disappear from the sight line, flail, smash to the ground, and give the Wednesday an electricity, a meaning, that all they needed to become a family was one millisecond of slippage, while the others–those who wanted him to stay, to hold the line, to become the brink, but no farther–felt viable now with disgust for the shouters: they wanted the man to save himself, step backward into the arms of the cops instead of the sky. They were jazzed now.

Pumped.

The lines were drawn.

Do it, asshole!

Don’t do it!

Way above there was a movement. In the dark clothing his every twitch counted. He folded over, a half- thing, bent, as if examining his shoes, like a pencil mark, most of which had been erased. The posture of a diver. And then they saw it. The watchers stood, silent. Even those who had wanted the man to jump felt the air knocked out. They drew back and moaned.

A body was sailing out into the middle of the air. He was gone. He’d done it. Some blessed themselves. Closed their eyes. Waited for the thump. The body twirled and caught and flipped, thrown around by the wind.

Then a shout sounded across the watchers, a woman’s voice: God, oh God, it’s a shirt, it’s just a shirt.

It was falli...
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Colum McCann is the internationally bestselling author of the novels Zoli, Dancer, This Side of Brightness, and Songdogs, as well as two critically acclaimed story collections. His fiction has been published in thirty languages. He has been a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was the inaugural winner of the Ireland Fund of Monaco Literary Award in Memory of Princess Grace. He has been named one of Esquire’s “Best and Brightest,” and his short film Everything in This Country Must was nominated for an Oscar in 2005. A contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Paris Review, he teaches in the Hunter College MFA Creative Writing Program. He lives in New York City with his wife and their three children.


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