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Colum McCann: Let the Great World Spin

Not much jolts New Yorkers out of their focus on their own immediate lives but two events that did both involved the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The first (or, rather, the second in time) was, of course, the 9/11 attack on the Towers. The first in time happened in 1974 and was Philippe Petit‘s tightrope walk across the two towers. This novel is a set of interrelated stories, all of which are in some way, albeit at times peripherally, related both to (a somewhat fictionalised) Petit’s walk and to the fictional story of Tillie Henderson alias Miss Bliss alias Puzzle alias Rosa P. alias Sweet-Cakes, a thirty-eight year old African-American prostitute, her daughter, Jazzlyn, and Jazzlyn’s two baby daughters.

Much of the novel is set in 1974, during the course of Petit’s walk. Some of the characters see it, while others only hear about it. One character will come into contact with Petit soon after his walk. McCann superbly describes the effect of Petit’s walk on the various characters, as well as other New Yorkers, but also shows how Petit came to do the walk. It was, to a certain extent, a mystical experience, something that he had been building up to all his life and something that he had to do because it was there. McCann describes his training, his life in New York before the walk and the complex preparations for the walk, as well as the immediate aftermath (his arrest and trial). In the afterword, McCann states I have used his walk in this novel, but all the other events and characters in this work are fictional. I have taken liberties with Petit’s walk, while trying to remain true to the texture of the moment and its surroundings.

The Tillie Henderson story actually starts in Ireland. Two brothers – John and Ciaran Corrigan – grow up together in Dublin with their mother, their father having long since left, though he reappears when the mother dies. John, the older brother, is always known simply as Corrigan, even to his brother. Corrigan is a religious man but not in the conventional sense. His philosophy, as he tells his brother, is Christ was quite easy to understand. He went where He was supposed to go. He stayed where He was needed. He took little or nothing along, a pair of sandals, a bit of a shirt, a few odds and ends to stave off the loneliness. He never rejected the world. Corrigan drinks heavily, starting when young and stays out late, doing, as he says, God’s work. His religion involved caring for the downtrodden, rather than following standard Catholic doctrine. He leaves for the United States, after studying to be a priest, in order to become a worker priest. His name and activities clearly remind us of Daniel Berrigan. Ciaran stays in Dublin, dropping out of university, but after nearly being killed in an IRA attack, he joins his brother in New York. Corrigan is living in a grim area of the Bronx and feels it is his duty to care for the prostitutes there. He lets them use the toilet in his flat and helps them in other ways, which results in some of the pimps beating him up but he carries on and, eventually, they leave him alone. He earns his living driving old people around and doing deliveries, but is most concerned with what he sees as his religious vocation. Much of this part of the story concerns how he helps the prostitutes, particularly Tillie and Jazzlyn.

But there are other stories. In particular, we follow the story of Claire and Solomon Soderberg. They had a son, Joshua, who was a computer expert, who was killed in Vietnam. Claire joins a support group for mothers who have lost sons in Vietnam, where she meets people of a different social class, in particular an African-American woman, Gloria, twice divorced, who lost all three of her sons in Vietnam. Gloria’s story will particularly interact with Tillie’s and Jazzlyn’s. Solomon Soderberg is a lawyer who has agreed to become a judge in New York. Through Soderberg, McCann will give us a horrendous picture of the New York legal system and it is he who will preside at the trials (heard consecutively) of both Petit and Tillie (for a whole series of crimes, including theft, drugs and prostitution). The other main story is of the couple who are involved in an accident with Corrigan and Jazzlyn, a couple of artists who have been been heavily involved in drugs and are now trying to clean up and focus on their art.

This could have been messy and sloppy but it definitely is not. McCann’s skill is to pull together the story of Petit and the impact it will have on many people, the story of Tillie and Jazzlyn, ordinary people caught up in a grim New York world but whose stories will, eventually, lead to some sort of redemption, and the stories of people who come into contact with them. It is done so very well that Petit’s tightrope walk and its quasi-mystical significance, as well as its challenge to authority, becomes the core around which everything else revolves, even the stories of the prostitutes and leads us to the post-9/11 ending where redemption is achieved.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Bloomsbury