As the narrator of Colum McCanns new novel sees it, Philippe Petits 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, Petits 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 lifes 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 McCanns 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. McCanns 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 lifes 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 doesnt land a punch. By books end, McCann is writing of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, the width of his canvas enhancing neither the plot nor our concern for it.