Finding A Balance Beyond 9/11

Philippe Petit balances on a wire stretched between the towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974. [Source: NYT/Jean-Louis Blondeau/Polaris]
Philippe Petit balances on a wire stretched between the towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974. [Source: NYT/Jean-Louis Blondeau/Polaris]

I’m reading Colum McCann’s fine novel, Let the Great World Spin, winner of  the National Book Award in 2009 . It  is widely acclaimed as a post-9/11 novel even though its setting is 1974 New York, when Philippe Petit made his audacious high-wire walk between the towers of the World Trade Center. McCann’s Prologue describes that scene as it was apprehended from ground level on the streets of lower Manhattan. Reading it  took my breath away. I heard in McCann’s phrasing the sprawling democratic lists and rolling cadences of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” It’s a robust expression of a long literary tradition. It begins:

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.

Colum McCann makes the Prologue freely available as a PDF excerpt [© Colum McCann 2009].

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