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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

Colum McCann is not a native New Yorker. He’s an Irishman wearing an “I heart NY” shirt. And not just any New York but the filthy, broke, careening-out-of-control New York of the 1970’s, before Rudi Giuliani cleaned everything up. I remember that NYC—I lived there. Tribeca was still a slum, Central Park was too dangerous to walk in at night, CBGB’s, Sid Vicious, and “Son of Sam”. A hard place to love, but some glorify it.  This is another one of those novels (it's getting to be a cliché, this structure) made up of interlocking vignettes about disparate characters, whose lives, unbeknownst to them, are in some mysterious way connected.  The book opens with a description of a seminal event— the high-wire walk between the twin towers by Philippe Petit in 1974, which was later documented in the film “Man on Wire”.  It was a really cool and crazy stunt at the time, but post 9/11, from a distance of almost three decades, Petit’s walk has taken on a deeper, allegorical meaning. Set against the grim despair of the lives being lived down below, it is a life-affirming counterpoint: the acrobat dances on air as the angels watch, while back on earth we are a lot closer to hell than to heaven. One of the main characters is Corrigan, an Irish Catholic lay brother who is too good for this world. He befriends the prostitutes outside his Bronx walkup and lives a monastic existence.  I found him very unbelievable and somewhat pretentious. Corrigan’s brother, Ciaran, is more down-to-earth but also a cliché of sorts, as are the foul-mouthed prostitutes-- Jazzlyn and her mother, Tillie, who turn tricks together. Tillie’s character has some tragic weight to it, at least. So does Claire, a Park Ave. matron whose son has died, and she is trying very hard to make a connection with some other women in a group for grieving mothers, but they think she is a wealthy snob.
The writing was lyrical and the images poetic, but the characters were a bit cardboard-y and one-dimensional. There was a falseness to it. I just didn’t get this book. 

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