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Let the Great World Spin

Colum McCann’s evocative new novel imagines how it felt to watch Philippe Petit from below.

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Lots of people talk about working without a net. But no one has ever done so on the scale of Philippe Petit, the French high-wire artist who spent 45 minutes walking, hopping, and lying on a wire stretched 110 stories up between the World Trade Center towers on Aug. 7, 1974.

Petit’s act of criminal artistry inspired this year’s Academy Award-winning documentary, “Man on Wire.” Now, acclaimed writer Colum McCann (“Zoli”) uses “the man in the air” as the axis for his gritty yet hopeful new novel Let the Great World Spin.

Today’s readers cannot think “World Trade Center” without remembering Sept. 11. That tragedy adds an automatic level of poignancy, as McCann harks back to a time when New Yorkers gazed up at the towers in amazement, rather than horror.

Told from multiple points of view, McCann, who lives in New York, performs his own gravity-defying act, swooping from prostitutes to priests, drug-addled artists to grieving mothers as his story unfolds around that morning. Everyone – from the judge who fined Petit a penny a floor and sentenced him to a children’s performance in Central Park, to the artist himself, who spent six years training for and planning his audacious feat – is touched, sometimes in heartbreaking ways, by the performance. And unlike in Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” this center holds. McCann has more on his mind than “mere anarchy.”

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