WTC Provides Back Story For Colum McCann's 'Spin'

Colum McCann
Brendan Bourke

Let the Great World Spin
By Colum McCann
Hardcover, 368 pages
Random House
List price: $25

Read An Excerpt

On a gray morning in August 1974, a man stepped off the edge of the yet-to-be completed World Trade Center and into history.

That morning, Philippe Petit crossed a wire stretched between the towers eight times. He danced, ran and lay down, performing for the crowd that had gathered more than 100 stories below his feet, before dismounting into the custody of New York police officers.

The tight-rope walk is the event around which a new novel, Let the Great World Spin, revolves. The book, by Colum McCann, won the National Book Award for fiction earlier this month.

Petit's death-defying act is familiar — it's also the subject of the documentary Man On Wire — but McCann tells Steve Inskeep that the people below were the ones whose lives he wanted to explore.

"What I was most interested in was not so much Philip Petit but the people who were on the ground, the people who walk the sort-of little tightrope of our ordinary everyday moments," McCann says.

The reactions of McCann's main characters to the stunt range from gripping fear that the tight-rope walker will fall, to disinterest or even disgust.

"I was interested in looking at what the dilemmas of their life happened to be," McCann says. "Not everybody is enthralled, in the novel, with the idea of the tight-rope walker. Some people, they look up into the sky and they see a man there on a wire, and why does he cheapen death by making it so easy and accessible?"

In the novel, one of McCann's characters describes fear as something floating in the air:

"It's like dust. You walk about and don't see it, don't notice it, but it's there. And it's all coming down, covering everything. You're breathing it in. You touch it, you drink it, you eat it. But it's so fine you don't notice it. But you're covered in it."

The passage's evocation of the ashes that thickened the air in lower Manhattan after the collapse of the towers was intentional, McCann says, and personal.

"My father-in-law was in the first building to be hit," he says. "He got out with 90 seconds to spare; he was one of the lucky ones. But he walked through that strange glaucoma storm of dust, and he came up to our house. I kept his shoes from that day, these shoes that are covered with the dust of the World Trade Center."

The ache of knowing that dust's history, without knowing its exact origin, haunted McCann.

"It could be concrete girder," he says. "It could be a curriculum vitae, a resume. It could be someone's eyelash. It could be a bit of all sorts of things."

For McCann, the desire to construct a back story proved both irresistible and fulfilling.

"I think we sort of have to try to reconstitute it and try to make meaning of it," McCann says. "I think we're learning to recover. I think we're moving toward moments of grace and understanding. And I think these things take time."

Asked where people might find grace in the midst of tension or tragedy, McCann answers with a lesson from a year he spent conversing with homeless men and women in New York before writing an earlier book.

McCann recalls: "These were people who had been through the most difficult of circumstances," but they always spoke of a life beyond the troubles they faced.

"Part of me really wants to believe that hope is entirely available to all of us. We don't have to embrace it. It would be sentimental and silly to say that we all need it, but it is absolutely available to all of us."

Excerpt: 'Let The Great World Spin'

Let The Great World Spin

Let the Great World Spin
By Colum McCann
Hardcover, 368 pages
Random House
List price: $25

Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some thought at first that it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it might be the perfect city joke—stand around and point upward, until people gathered, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were staring upward at nothing at all, like waiting for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag. But the longer they watched, the surer they were. He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped dark against the gray of the morning. A window washer maybe. Or a construction worker. Or a jumper.

Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky.

He could only be seen at certain angles so that the watchers had to pause at street corners, find a gap between buildings, or meander from the shadows to get a view unobstructed by cornicework, gargoyles, balustrades, roof edges. None of them had yet made sense of the line strung at his feet from one tower to the other. Rather, it was the manshape that held them there, their necks craned, torn between the promise of doom and the disappointment of the ordinary. It was the dilemma of the watchers: they didn't want to wait around for nothing at all, some idiot standing on the precipice of the towers, but they didn't want to miss the moment either, if he slipped, or got arrested, or dove, arms stretched.

Around the watchers, the city still made its everyday noises. Car horns. Garbage trucks. Ferry whistles. The thrum of the subway. The M22 bus pulled in against the sidewalk, braked, sighed down into a pothole. A flying chocolate wrapper touched against a fire hydrant. Taxi doors slammed. Bits of trash sparred in the darkest reaches of the alleyways. Sneakers found their sweetspots. The leather of briefcases rubbed against trouserlegs. A few umbrella tips clinked against the pavement. Revolving doors pushed quarters of conversation out into the street. But the watchers could have taken all the sounds and smashed them down into a single noise and still they wouldn't have heard much at all: even when they cursed, it was done quietly, reverently. They found themselves in small groups together beside the traffic lights on the corner of Church and Dey; gathered under the awning of Sam's barbershop; in the doorway of Charlie's Audio; a tight little theater of men and women against the railings of St. Paul's Chapel; elbowing for space at the windows of the Woolworth Building. Lawyers. Elevator operators. Doctors. Cleaners. Prep chefs. Diamond merchants. Fish sellers.

Sad- jeaned whores. All of them reassured by the presence of one another.

Stenographers. Traders. Deliveryboys. Sandwichboard men. Cardsharks. Con Ed. Ma Bell. Wall Street. A locksmith in his van on the corner of Dey and Broadway. A bike messenger lounging against a lamppost on West. A red- faced rummy out looking or an early- morning pour. From the Staten Island Ferry they glimpsed him. From the meatpacking warehouses on the West Side. From the new high- rises in Battery Park. From the breakfast carts down on Broadway. From the plaza below. From the towers themselves.

Sure, there were some who ignored the fuss, who didn't want to be bothered. It was seven forty- seven in the morning and they were too jacked up for anything but a desk, a pen, a telephone. Up they came from the subway stations, from limousines, off city buses, crossing the street at a clip, refusing the prospect of a gawk. Another day, another dolor. But as they passed the little clumps of commotion they began to slow down.

Some stopped altogether, shrugged, turned nonchalantly, walked to the corner, bumped up against the watchers, went to the tips of their toes, gazed over the crowd, and then introduced themselves with a Wow or a Gee- whiz or a Jesus H. Christ.

The man above remained rigid, and yet his mystery was mobile. He stood beyond the railing of the observation deck of the south tower—at any moment he might just take off. Below him, a single pigeon swooped down from the top floor of the Federal Office Building, as if anticipating the fall. The movement caught the eyes of some watchers and they followed the gray flap against the small of the standing man. The bird shot from one eave to another, and it was then the watchers noticed that they had been joined by others at the windows of offices, where blinds were being lifted and a few glass panes labored upward. All that could be seen was a pair of elbows or the end of a shirtsleeve, or an arm garter, but then it was joined by a head, or an odd- looking pair of hands above it, lifting the frame even higher. In the windows of nearby skyscrapers, figures came to look out—men in shirtsleeves and women in bright blouses, wavering in the glass like funhouse apparitions.

Higher still, a weather helicopter executed a dipping turn over the Hudson—a curtsy to the fact that the summer day was going to be cloudy and cool anyway—and the rotors beat a rhythm over the warehouses of the West Side. At first the helicopter looked lopsided in its advance, and a small side window was slid open as if the machine were looking for air. A lens appeared in the open window. It caught a brief flash of light. After a moment the helicopter corrected beautifully and spun across the expanse. Some cops on the West Side Highway switched on their misery lights, swerved fast off the exit ramps, making the morning all the more magnetic.

A charge entered the air all around the watchers and—now that the day had been made official by sirens—there was a chatter among them, their balance set on edge, their calm fading, and they turned to one another and began to speculate, would he jump, would he fall, would he tiptoe along the ledge, did he work there, was he solitary, was he a decoy, was he wearing a uniform, did anyone have binoculars? Perfect strangers touched one another on the elbows. Swearwords went between them, and whispers that there'd been a botched robbery, that he was some sort of cat burglar, that he'd taken hostages, he was an Arab, a Jew, a Cypriot, an IRA man, that he was really just a publicity stunt, a corporate scam, Drink more Coca- Cola, Eat more Fritos, Smoke more Parliaments, Spray more Lysol, Love more Jesus. Or that he was a protester and he was going to hang a slogan, he would slide it from the towerledge, leave it there to flutter in the breeze, like some giant piece of sky laundry—nixon out now! remember 'nam, sam! independence for indochina!—and then someone said that maybe he was a hang glider or a parachutist, and all the others laughed, but they were perplexed by the cable at his feet, and the rumors began again, a collision of curse and whisper, augmented by an increase in sirens, which got their hearts pumping even more, and the helicopter found a purchase near the west side of the towers, while down in the foyer of the World Trade Center the cops were sprinting across the marble floor, and the undercovers were whipping out badges from beneath their shirts, and the fire trucks were pulling into the plaza, and the redblue dazzled the glass, and a flatbed truck arrived with a cherry picker, its fat wheels bouncing over the curb, and someone laughed as the picker kiltered sideways, the driver looking up, as if the basket might reach all that sad huge way, and the security guards were shouting into their walkie- talkies, and the whole August morning was blown wide open, and the watchers stood rooted, there was no going anywhere for a while, the voices rose to a crescendo, all sorts of accents, a babel, until a small redheaded man in the Home Title Guarantee Company on Church Street lifted the sash of his office window, placed his elbows on the sill, took a deep breath, leaned out, and roared into the distance: Do it, asshole! There was a dip before the laughter, a second before it sank in among the watchers, a reverence for the man's irreverence, because secretly that's what so many of them felt—Do it, for chrissake! Do it!—and then a torrent of chatter was released, a call- and- response, and it seemed to ripple all the way from the windowsill down to the sidewalk and along the cracked pavement to the corner of Fulton, down the block along Broadway, where it zigzagged down John, hooked around to Nassau, and went on, a domino of laughter, but with an edge to it, a longing, an awe, and many of the watchers realized with a shiver that no matter what they said, they really wanted to witness a great fall, see someone arc downward all that distance, to disappear from the sight line, flail, smash to the ground, and give the Wednesday an electricity, a meaning, that all they needed to become a family was one millisecond of slippage, while the others—those who wanted him to stay, to hold the line, to become the brink, but no farther—felt viable now with disgust for the shouters: they wanted the man to save himself, step backward into the arms of the cops instead of the sky. They were jazzed now.

Pumped.

The lines were drawn.

Do it, asshole!

Don't do it!

Way above there was a movement. In the dark clothing his every twitch counted. He folded over, a half- thing, bent, as if examining his shoes, like a pencil mark, most of which had been erased. The posture of a diver. And then they saw it. The watchers stood, silent. Even those who had wanted the man to jump felt the air knocked out. They drew back and moaned.

A body was sailing out into the middle of the air. He was gone. He'd done it. Some blessed themselves. Closed their eyes. Waited for the thump. The body twirled and caught and flipped, thrown around by the wind.

Then a shout sounded across the watchers, a woman's voice: God, oh God, it's a shirt, it's just a shirt.

It was falling, falling, falling, yes, a sweatshirt, fluttering, and then their eyes left the clothing in midair, because high above the man had unfolded upward from his crouch, and a new hush settled over the cops above and the watchers below, a rush of emotion rippling among them, because the man had arisen from the bend holding a long thin bar in his hands, jiggling it, testing its weight, bobbing it up and down in the air, a long black bar, so pliable that the ends swayed, and his gaze was fixed on the far tower, still wrapped in scaffolding, like a wounded thing waiting to be reached, and now the cable at his feet made sense to everyone, and whatever else it was there would be no chance they could pull away now, no morning coffee, no conference room cigarette, no nonchalant carpet shuffle; the waiting had been made magical, and they watched as he lifted one dark- slippered foot, like a man about to enter warm gray water. The watchers below pulled in their breath all at once. The air felt suddenly shared. The man above was a word they seemed to know, though they had not heard it before.

Out he went.

From Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Copyright 2009 by Colum McCann. Published by Random House. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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