I may have been overhyped on this one a little bit. When the late Frank McCourt reviewed the book for Amazon, he gushed: “Now I worry about Colum McCann. What is he going to do after this blockbuster groundbreaking heartbreaking symphony of a novel? No novelist writing of New York has climbed higher, dived deeper”. Add this to the fact that I absolutely loved McCann’s 1998 novel This Side of Brightness (also about New York), layer on the National Book Award for this new one, and you probably have impossible expectations to live up to. Anyway, I liked it, but didn’t love it.
McCann strings together a group of diverse characters in 1974 New York City by the very public feat accomplished by Philippe Petit: a tightrope walk between the then-new and largely vacant Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The cast includes a judge quietly grieving for a son lost in Vietnam, a 38-year-old grandmother and her daughter, both prostitutes, an Irish monk struggling with his vow of chastity, a drug-addled artist and her soulless boyfriend, and Philippe Petit himself. Like many books that use this framework, I was entranced by some characters, and wearied by others. The tightrope walk itself, though I don’t fully understand the motivation, is riveting. Here’s a trailer for the documentary about the event, Man on Wire:
The book did keep my interest, and by the end, the tying together of characters succeeded for me. If you’re interested in New York in the 70s, tightrope walking, or just enjoy watching an excellent author weave multiple plot lines into a satisfying finish, I’d recommend this book. But for me, This Side of Brightness, which worked with only two main story lines, one in the past and one in the present, was more memorable.