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.
So opens Let the Great World Spin.
I heard about the book from a Diane Rehm Show podcast in 2009. It was a hot summer day, and I was walking around Foggy Bottom transfixed by the author reading his fictionalized account of Philippe Petit‘s walk between the Twin Towers.
In some ways, this book reminded me of Netherland, and in others, A Visit from the Goon Squad. The interwoven stories hinge on two events: Petit’s 1974 walk, and the trial of a prostitute. These events dance around the periphery of the life of an uptown Jewish doctor’s wife grieving for the death of her son. An African-American woman who has also lost her sons takes in the children of the prostitute, dead in a car accident shortly after her trial. A woman tangentially involved in the accident feels responsibility for the death of the priest who had befriended the prostitute, and seeks out his brother, the one-time john of the prostitute’s mother, left behind in prison. It’s a complex and emotional book, wonderfully written, and deserving of the National Book Award, though I’m not sure what makes a book National Book Award worthy.
I copied these lines down weeks ago when I first finished the novel on a hot Sunday when I needed a laugh more than a cry on my friend’s couch, her cat next to me, feeling absolutely alone, gutted in the same ways that I was when I finished The Wild Palms:
I walked in the woods, around the lake, out onto the dirt roads. Gather all around the things that you love, I thought, and prepare to lose them.