What a great title. What an amazing image. And let me tell you something else, Colum McCann delivers in imagery, language, structure and sheer moments of heart wrenching beauty in telling a story that begins with the famous highwire tightrope walk that Philippe Petit did between the Twin Towers in New York City on August 6th, 1974.
Like an angel poised high above the city, the tightrope walker balances between life and death, beauty and horror, strength and frailty. And as New Yorker’s collectively held their breath below watching this fine balancing act, McCann with an almost spin of the dice begins to tell stories of people from all walks of life who were connected by the experience of either hearing or seeing the tightrope walker on that hot August day.
From the young Irish priest who offers kindness and grace to prostitutes in the Bronx, to a judge and his wife who suffer the loss of their only son in Vietnam, to two young orphans who survive the carnage of their mother’s terrible life and her untimely death, these portraits and others show a city in the aftermath of an unforgiving war and still deeply divided by race and class.
Ultimately all these stories coalesce into a single point where the dots connect. Not only does the experience of the tightrope walker connect these seemingly disparate lives but what McCann evokes in his characters is the terrible burden and the incredible beauty of their humanity. Like a prism he turns his cast into the light so we can see them more clearly.
There are so many times when I can feel something but I can’t express it. I feel that there is language in this book that has given expression to some of these very personal feelings and in doing so has grounded me in the larger human experience. Even a line as simple as “sometimes we go on existing in a place even after we left it.” uses so few words to express a mountain of feeling.
Dave is reading Shantaram right now. He loves to torture me by reading excerpts. I demand that he stop. It makes me cringe. The language is florid and the writer is in love with his word count as much as he seems to be in love with himself.
Colum McCann is precisely the opposite. He is proof that you don’t need a lot of words to make it count. He delivers the story in sometimes spare, poetic language that allows you to feel and understand the moment for what it is. His language serves up the plain, raw experience that being human can often be.
In setting the story in 1974 he is able to cast the Twin Towers as a cultural icon before their terrible destruction. It also allows him to explore the impact of war on a city as complex as New York City where race and class issues are still unevenly resolved. And yet there are moments, as in when Gloria and Claire are able to set aside their obvious life differences and simply allow love to prevail that you realize that there is a kind of moving forward. That there is hope. That life can be beautiful. Like the image of the tightrope walker, life is beautiful and terrible and fragile.
You probably didn’t have to read this far to guess that I thought this was an amazing book.