Rick's Reviews > Let the Great World Spin

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
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Feb 19, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction
Read in February, 2010

This, McCann’s fifth novel and seventh work of published fiction, is an exceptionally engaging novel, sad and beautiful as the world often is. Let the Great World Spin tells the stories of a set of New Yorkers whose fates overlap with varying degrees of awareness and connection around a single point of time in August 1974: an Irish immigrant monk, a couple of South Bronx hookers, a pair of avant-garde artists, a Park Avenue mother and her husband, a criminal court judge, who have lost their only son, a budding street photographer, and an opera-loving woman from Missouri who lives a contained and proper life in the Bronx although her past is filled with tragedy of lost family members.

While the orbits of their personal lives move close and separate (or continue in a shared gravitational pull moving forward) a more public event captures the jaundiced attention of the city in the midst of one of its most doleful eras—one of rampant crime and vandalism, of financial and political bankruptcy—an individual’s daring adventure atop the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Phillippe Petit drops a cable between the towers and entertains a growing crowd as he playfully and expertly tightrope walks between the two buildings. Despite the implicit danger there is nonetheless a redemptive beauty that catches the city’s attention, including that of many of the featured characters; but McCann doesn’t settle for that as the only story of redemption, the only sign of beauty in the bleak city with its burning ghettoes, its overstuffed criminal justice system, and its grieving populace (children lost to the Vietnam War, youthful innocence lost to failed opportunities and self-destructive impulses, great hopes lost to reality’s less than generous capacity for fulfillment). He finds beauty through the eyes of the young photographer in spray-painted work in dark tunnels, in a hooker’s determination to take a rap for her daughter, a pacifist’s willingness to take pointless beatings to remain on a corner serving coffee to women on “the stroll,” in the power of friendship to triumph over race and class, in the ability of the heart to grieve mightily and yet still beat with hope, in the human capacity to reinvent yourself through compassion and responsibility.

McCann does test the limits of coincidence but the power of the narrative and the emotional connection he builds between the reader and his characters make the minor excesses there barely a distraction. Let the Great World Spin is a very satisfying novel, a great novel about New York City, about America, and about the human condition. In the movie Down by Law Tom Waits’s character sings a snatch of a song with the line, “it’s a sad and beautiful world.” McCann has written a novel that with conviction documents both the sadness and the beauty. It’s a democratic fiction he writes, convinced, and convincing us, that there are many stories to tell. There are, for instance, as he quotes Aleksandr Hemon in the novel’s motto, all “the lives we could live, all the people we will never know, never will be, they are everywhere.” A handful are in the pages of this novel and, if it is at all representative of McCann’s earlier work, more in those pages and still more to come from this very accomplished and talented writer.
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Tung Beautiful review. Illuminates the best parts of the book.


Wendy What a fantastic review of this beautiful and haunting novel! Thanks Rick!


Tung Rick, just finished the documentary "Man on Wire". Really good, especially after having read this book. You should watch it.


Rick Hi Wendy,
Didn't see this wonderful note until just now for some reason. Thanks for reading the review and being so generous! I'm reading McCann's novel about the sandhogs, tunnel diggers in NY in the early 20th century, and a homeless man who lives in those tunnels in contmporary times. So far, so good, about 60 pages in. Rick


Rick Thanks, Tung, for the compliment and the tip. I'll look for the documentary. Rick


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