Let the Great World Spin

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Colum McCann (New York: Random House, 2009) Paper, 375 pages.  U.S. $15.00


             Balance, risk, plausible coincidence--these are the warp in the story woven by Colum McCann; courage, love, and grief are the woof. 

The preacher at the funeral of a young prostitute from a particularly seedy street in the South Bronx captures the context for the first part of the book:  “The house of justice had been vandalized, he said.  Young girls like Jazzlyn were forced to do horrific things.  As they grew older the world had demanded terrible things of them.  This was a vile world. . . . The only way to fight it was with charity, justice, and goodness.  It was not a simple plea, he said, not at all.  Goodness was more difficult than evil.” (p. 145)

Charity and goodness mingle with  “the girls” in the person of John Corrigan, known simply as “Corrigan.”   Corrigan is a radical monk in an order left unidentified and vague; he is both connected and not connected.  His only visit from a fellow monk of his order ends in mutual non-understanding.   He lives on the fifth floor of a wretched tenement, with a minimum of decrepit furniture.  He has befriended the prostitutes on his street; he allows them to use his bathroom, and he takes beatings from their pimps, who resent this interference with their control of their stable.  Corrigan also takes the elderly residents of a nursing home for outings, always gently concerned for their comfort.  He falls in love with Adelita, an aide at the nursing home, who returns his love.  The inner struggle that ensues would, in a lesser writer, be the stuff of cliché.  McCann, however, takes us into the soul of a man torn apart by two loves. 

Corrigan is critically injured when a car sideswipes the van he is driving, returning to the South Bronx with Jazzlyn, who had been arraigned in a Manhattan court.  Jazzlyn is killed outright; Corrigan dies in the hospital.  In the third part of the book, we meet Lara, passenger in the car that caused the accident and failed to stop.  She is haunted by the image of the girl “all smashed up.” ( p. 121).  McCann traces her search for the identity of the girl and her encounter with Corrigan’s brother, Ciaran.  He ends this section with its title, following one of the many instances in which his prose slips into poetry.  Lara has left Ciaran in a bar, where they had talked of Corrigan and Jazzlyn, and not at all about what was growing between them.  She looks at Ciaran through the window, and he sees her:  “He glanced up in my direction and I froze.  Quickly I turned away. There are rocks deep enough in this earth that no matter what the rupture, they will never see the surface.  There is, I think, a fear of love.  There is a fear of love.” (p. 156)

Between these two sections, we meet a group of women who gather regularly to share their grief over the loss of their sons in Viet Nam.  There seems to be no connection to Corrigan and Jazzlyn.  In a later section, however, Gloria, the only African-American in the group, impulsively takes under her care Jazzlyn’s children, having no awareness of whose they are.  And later still, one of those children, grown, returns to a Park Avenue penthouse to say good-bye to the dying Claire Soderberg, one of the grieving women, and a close friend of Gloria. 

             With exquisite art and complete plausibility McCann draws these and other disparate characters together.  Above them all, removed, yet touching each of them, is the walker/dancer on the cable stretched between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, his long pole countering every minute shift in balance.  Today’s reader will instinctively connect this feat, based on the historical walk of Philippe Petit in 1974, with the destruction of the towers in 2001.  For the characters in the novel, it is a wonder, provoking questions and illusions.  It is drama high above the streets--spectacular, high-risk, open only to a person of singular skill and daring.  Meanwhile, on the streets, in the tenements, and in Park Avenue penthouses, the everyday drama of everyday people unfolds quietly.

             As in any serious novel, in Let the Great World Spin, theology meets life.  Women without hope struggle for a better life for their children, mothers grieve the loss of their children, a woman is transformed by compassion, failure in communication isolates wife from husband.  It is the stuff of life that feeds the preacher.


Pat Chaffee, OP

Racine, Wisconsin


Book Review Archive

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(The latest submissions are listed first.)


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• The Mystical Way In Everyday Life •
• Racial Justice and the Catholic Church •
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• Living With Wisdom •
• Where the Pure Water Flows •
• Best Advice For Preaching •
• We Speak the Word Of the Lord •
• Great World Religions: Islam •
• Of Books and Preparation •
• After Sunday: A Theology of Work •
• A Captive Voice: The Liberation of Preaching •
• Written Text Becomes Living Word... •
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