My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the best post September 11 book I’ve read, mostly because it doesn’t dwell on the events of that fateful day. Instead, McCann takes us back thirty-plus years to that fateful day in 1974 when Phillipe Petit strung a cable between the two towers of the World Trade Center and did something no one else would ever repeat. The opening chapter is a breathless sweep of lower Manhattan during those forty glorious moments when the tightrope walker was up there, when New Yorkers gathered on the streets below and stared up at the small black dot that seemed to float through the sky. The beauty of the book lies not in the story of Mr. Petit’s walk but in the story of the people on the street below, the people who may or may not have seen that famous dance but who were, in some way, affected by it.
We are taken to a small village in Ireland where two brothers are raised by their mother, one of whom moves to New York to become a priest, and the other follows a few years later. We are introduced to a woman nervous about meeting a group of women who share stories about the sons they’ve lost in Vietnam. She is nervous because they will be visiting her Park Avenue apartment on this day and most of them hail from small apartments in the boroughs: Bronx, Staten Island, Queens. We meet an artist who has made one mistake too many. All these characters come together in a tableau of 1974 New York that could be a New York of today; could be any city today. The connections all these characters have come together slowly, and loop back repeatedly to the man on the wire high above the financial district on that hot day in August 1974.
McCann’s story is a reflection of the past on the present. “Sometimes you’ve got to go up to a very high floor to see what the past has done to the present,” Gloria, the novel’s wise sage, says. We see the world through the eyes of people living through a difficult time in New York City history, and through them we see ourselves. Despite the advances that have been made, technologically, economically, socially, the New York I live in is still very much like the New York McCann writes about. Socially divided, racially separated. Today’s New York is not as violent and not as scary a place to live, but it is still a rough neighborhood where everyone struggles, from the Park Avenue wife living on an inheritance, to the painters desperate to create a new kind of art, to the street walkers who, despite their best intentions, still manage to steer their children into their profession, to the priest who befriends them and loves them all. “Everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.”
Connected the way Phillipe Petit connected the two disparate towers of the World Trade Center and from there looked down upon the world and watched it spin.