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Review: ‘Great World’ Sets History in Fine Balance

Colum McCann's novel opens with a stunning five-page set piece about a tightrope performance that was called "the artistic crime of the 20th century."

In August 1974, Philippe Petit broke several laws, including those having to do with gravity, as he walked a tightrope he had strung a quarter-mile above the ground between the towers of the new World Trade Center.

Petit is never named in "Let the Great World Spin," but his walk that day ("It was so much like having sex with the wind," McCann writes) connects the lives of a remarkably diverse cast of characters.

The novel opens with the perspective from the ground:

"The watchers below pulled in their breath all at once. The air felt suddenly shared. The man above was a word they seemed to know, though they had not heard it before.

"Out he went."

And out goes McCann on his own literary tightrope. He weaves an ambitious mosaic, mostly set on that summer day in 1974.

His characters include a Park Avenue matron whose son has been killed in Vietnam, a radical Irish monk and the Bronx prostitutes he befriends, including a mother-daughter team.

Their lives intersect in surprising yet believable ways. One character, who helps people out in disasters, likes the moment when her clients "find some meaning that sideswipes them."

McCann, a native of Ireland who teaches at New York's Hunter College, sideswipes readers with language.

The Park Avenue matron meets with other women who have lost sons in Vietnam and comes to "a sort of deep understanding. She sees it in their faces. Quieter than rain. Quieter than leaves."

She smokes: "She had heard somewhere that cigarettes are good for grief. One long drag and you forget how to cry. The body too busy dealing with the poison. No wonder they gave them out free to the soldiers. Lucky strikes."

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.

McCann writes of one of his characters, the daughter and granddaughter of prostitutes: "She likes the word mother and all the complications it brings. She isn't interested in true or birth or adoptive or whatever other series of mothers there are in the world."

The final 24 pages jump ahead to 2006 with a elegiac glimpse of hope: "The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough."

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"Let the Great World Spin"
By Colum McCann
Random House, 349 pp., $25

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