Over the last year I’ve heard an incredible amount of buzz concerning Colum McCann’s 2009 novel Let The Great World Spin. Local Oregonian columnist Steve Duin raved about it several times, first last March in one of his book reviews and later in December as part of his year-end wrap-up for the annual reading contest – a contest for those of you who don’t know encourages Portlanders young and old to read as many books as possible over the course of the year. Let’s just say after glowing reviews on NPR as well as seeing it featured in the monthly Quality Paperback Club catalog, needless to say after spotting a copy of it one afternoon at my local public library I eagerly pounced on it. Cracking it open later that evening I first felt the book seemed merely OK, but by the next night I was feverishly burning through it. Soon, I finished McCann’s novel in only a few days. Let The Great World Spin is a fantastic novel and well deserving of the hype. But talk is cheap, it’s pretty easy for anyone to praise a novel that’s been so well received. So let me tell why this one is so amazing.
For starters, this novel had to win me over because like I said, when I started reading it, for whatever reason I wasn’t that impressed. For the first 20 pages I thought at best, this was just a good novel and not an outstanding one. At worst I feared I had another Shipping News on my hands, meaning a highly praised novel that everyone liked but me. But the deeper I went into McCann’s novel the better it got.
Set largely in New York City during the early seventies, with its rampant crime unchecked urban decay, widespread drug abuse and bankrupt city government McCann’s Gotham resembles a failed city-state. Adding insult to injury the tired city limps along against the humiliating backdrop of such national failures as the Vietnam War and the Nixon Administration. Into the grinding chaos McCann inserts an incredibly diverse cast of compelling characters including a 39-year-old prostitute, both a grandmother and lover of the Afghan poet Rumi, barely surviving life on the city’s mean streets with her daughter, also a prostitute; a heroin indulging Irish priest called by God to minister among the denizens of the lowest depths, unable to leave his order or the love of girlfriend, a Guatemalan nurse and single mom; a Park Avenue dwelling wife of a city judge mourning the loss of her young son, a computer programing prodigy killed in a grenade attack in Vietnam.
It’s one thing to create a cast of interesting characters, McCann in his quest to create a great novel instead of merely a very good one weaves their lives together, creating a web of inter-related relationships told from varying perspectives and across the spectrum of race, age, class and gender, much as we saw in the Academy Award winning film Crash but perhaps with greater depth and poignancy. Enriching this tapestry are the respective backstories of each character, each of them engaging and memorable. Like some strange cosmic game of six degrees to Kevin Bacon, all of the characters are linked in some way or another by Philippe Pettit’s 1974 tightrope walk across the World Trade Center’s twin towers, an event called by some as “the artistic crime of the century” and recently chronicled in the 2008 Academy Award winning documentary Man on Wire.
Like a charming and persistent lover, McCann’s novel seduced me with its well-crafted characters and exceptional writing. This book easily makes my Top Ten Favorites at mid-year and probably for all of 2011. Highly recommended !