Finding hope in despair

I read about 10 novels this year and there were some marvelous writers among them: Jhumpa Lahiri, Adam Johnson, Jess Walter, Anne Hillerman.

Those four authors alone transported me to wildly different places like India, Korea, Spokane and the Navajo tribal lands of the American Southwest. In those places, they sketched interesting characters facing varied challenges in their fictional lives.

mccann book coverAs I wind up the year, it is with a feeling of deep satisfaction and appreciation after reading Colum McCann‘s masterful novel “Let The Great World Spin.”

At a time when I find myself worrying whether the United States can rise above the callousness and insensitivity that characterize our politics and the way we relate to each other, along comes a novel that restores my hope. Granted, it’s a 6-year-old work of fiction but it’s one that leaves you thinking maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance we can do better.

Set in August 1974, as the World Trade Center was being completed, and published in 2009, eight years after the Twin Towers fell, the book was widely perceived as a post-9/11 novel. But that’s not exactly right. McCann himself told an interviewer that while the book represents his own emotional response to 9/11, it could also be “just a book about New York in 1974.”

To understand the events of that terrible September and all those that followed, he realized he needed to go backwards. “Wherever we are now is wherever we once were,” is how he put it.

***

The book begins with a real-life event: the re-creation of Philippe Petit’s audacious tightrope walk between the towers on August 7, 1974. The daring feat — an incomprehensible one, really — captures the attention of New Yorkers on the ground and becomes a thread for the next dozen chapters as McCann introduces various characters and somehow connects them, one by one, to each other. An improbable feat in a city of more than 8 million people, for sure, but one that he makes plausible.

It’s a masterful narrative, executed seamlessly. McCann takes the reader from Ireland to the Bronx to Park Avenue and back and forth again. He writes compellingly about a priest and prostitutes, a judge’s wife and military moms, among others. About blacks and whites, rich and poor, young and old, streetwise and otherwise.

He writes about life and death, poverty and wealth, arrogance and humility. Not in a sociological way, but through his characters’ words, actions and inner dialogue. It’s through their interactions with each other and reflections on their own lives that connections are made, insights are gained, truths are revealed, empathy occurs.

And it’s in the telling of those individual stories — and the stitching together of all of them — where the novel soars. Just when you think we can’t sink any lower in the way we treat each other in real life, McCann’s motley cast of characters gives you something to feel good about.

***

It always astounds and delights me when a foreign-born author writes with such intelligence and insight about American culture. McCann, born in Dublin but living and working in New York City for years, clearly does in this novel.

colum mccann

Colum McCann: His novel “Let The Great World Spin” is dazzling.

As I made my way through the book, I shared a sentence or two on Facebook to give a sense of his vocabulary and his writing prowess. I’ll share just one excerpt here from the perspective of a character named Gloria:

“I was happy enough the day my second husband found himself a younger version of the train he was riding into oblivion. His hat had always been a helping too large on his head anyway. He upped and left me with three boys and a view of the Deegan [an expressway through the South Bronx]. I didn’t mind. My last thought of him was that nobody ought to be as lonely as him, walking away. But it didn’t break my heart to close the door on him, or even to suck up the pride of a monthly check.”

One reviewer seized on the symbolism that also occurred to me as I read of the solitary tightrope walker above and the dissimilar but now-connected lives on the ground:

“Brilliant…a reminder to look up — and to look into one another’s eyes.”

McCann deservedly won the National Book Award for “Let The Great World Spin.” I’m sorry I missed his recent appearance in Portland, but I fully expect I will be reading more of him in the new year.

Read an interview with McCann about his new book, “Thirteen Ways of Looking.”

Photograph: colummccann.com

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One thought on “Finding hope in despair

  1. Foreigners especially astute foreigners are presented with a very interesting view of use in these times. I only hope that they can see beyond the extreme 10% on each end of the spectrum.

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