by John Boland

Although only published in Ireland this weekend, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin has been on the bookshelves in America since June, where it has been attracting the kind of attention most writers would die for. “The first great 9/11 novel,” Esquire magazine raved. “One of the most electric, profound novels I have read in years,” the New York Times reviewer enthused.

“Leave it to an Irishman to write one of the greatest-ever novels about New York,” Dave Eggers declared, while Oprah Winfrey – that final arbiter of literary taste in America – placed it among those few books that “you can’t put down.” And the late Frank McCourt, in one of his last public utterances, expressed his “worry” about the author: “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.”

Readers are normally right to be wary of such hyperbole, yet the praise here hasn’t been overstated – or at least not by much, anyway. This really is a remarkable novel, ambitious in its aims, assured in its accomplishment and wholly engrossing as a work of contemporary fiction. And it’s a book that those who were always aware of McCann’s talent but not quite persuaded of his substance will find an extraordinary leap forward, both in technique and depth of understanding. Quite simply, it’s the best Irish novel I’ve read in a long time.

Or perhaps that should be put differently because while the 44-year-old McCann is an Irish writer, born and educated in Dublin and working here for some years as a freelance journalist, most of his fiction isn’t discernibly Irish – not just in subject matter but in approach and tone, too. You can put that down to the fact that  he departed for America in the 1980s, married there and has lived with his family in New York since the early 1990s, but James Joyce was also an exile and in his imagination he never left the mean streets of his native city. William Trevor, too, has kept himself geographically removed from Ireland for most of his writing life but is recognisably Irish both in his preoccupations and in his authorial voice. And the brilliant but forlorn Maeve Brennan, increasingly stranded in a New York of small hotels, never stopped conjuring up her childhood in Ranelagh’s Cherryfield Avenue.

McCann hasn’t shrugged off his Irishness – the country and its inhabitants are depicted in his early books – but there’s been something almost determinedly international about his recent fiction, burrowing among the dispossessed in the subway tunnels of New York in This Side of Brightness, wondering about Nureyev and the myth that surrounds him in Dancer, and summoning up the lives of marginalised Romany gypsies in Zoli.

These imaginative exercises bespeak not just a restlessness with the notion of the Ould Sod and with how a writer should engage with it but a more general restlessness about finding a subject matter and a voice, which he has now triumphantly found in Let the Great World Spin, whose title comes from Tennyson’s Locksley Hall.

In fact, he’s found ten voices and one of the bracing achievements of this book is how he’s managed to  integrate them into a compelling whole and, in the process, to offer a convincing portrait of New York, described by Maeve Brennan as “the most cumbersome, most reckless, most ambitious, most confused, most comical, the saddest and coldest and most human of cities.”

That’s McCann’s New York, too, and he presents it through a variety of characters as they confront their predicaments and demons on an August day in 1974. Among them there’s radical Irish monk Corrigan, witnessed by his bemused brother as he attempts to ease the lives of black hookers in the Bronx; there’s posh Claire grieving in her Park Avenue apartment for the death of her son in Vietnam; there’s stoned hippie artist Lara, dragged into the life of the Bronx hookers by a car accident; there’s Tillie, one of the hookers, who finds herself in prison when her daughter is killed in the accident; there’s Claire’s husband Solomon, a Jewish judge who comes face to face with the city’s horrors on a daily basis; there’s Gloria, an aspirational black woman whose sons have also died in the war; and finally there’s Jaslyn, grand-daughter of Tillie, who in a final shift to the present day, finds herself in the Park Avenue apartment of  the now elderly and infirm Claire. And linking all these is the presence in the city of French tightrope walker Philippe Petit as he strolled between the 110th floors of the Twin Towers on that August morning in 1974.

All of this may sound inordinately and improbably schematic and formulaic, as in that reductively silly movie Crash or such overpraised films about “connectiveness” as 21 Grams and Babel, but McCann pulls off his interconnecting stories with dazzling adroitness and genuine empathy. I thought his rendering of Tillie more of  an impersonation than a  recreation (he doesn’t really get inside her skin) and a couple of episodes involving computer geeks and subway tricksters, while entertaining, go nowhere, but his evocations of Claire, Solomon and Gloria, along with the linguistic voices he finds for them, are indications of a deep imaginative sympathy – you really feel that you know these people and , more importantly, you  care about them and worry what will happen to them.

And while the use of the tightrope walker may seem like a tacked-on and spurious symbolic device (a man uniting the city for a moment with his extraordinary daring), McCann weaves it into the narrative with such assurance that Petit’s constantly mentioned presence throughout the book runs as a compelling motif, like a throbbing bass line.

But the book is full of wry insights, too – Tillie predicting that “at the end of the world they’re gonna have cockroaches and Barry Manilow records”; Lara observing irate car drivers “leaning on their horns, the chorus of New York, impatient to get going again, the fuck-you shrill”;  Claire smiling at Gloria with “one of those smiles that has a little zipper in it, a little too tight at the edges”; Solomon recalling basic courtroom tricks: “Seldom look the defendant in the eye. Seldom smile. Try to appear as if you have a mild case of haemmorhoids. Always be scribbling. Use the rap sheet as a guide to character. Make sure there are no reporters in the room. If there are, all rules are underlined twice. Never stare at the stenographer’s rear end.”

More seriously, Solomon reflects on “how the city had become such a disgusting thing on his watch. How it lifted babies by the hair, and how it raped seventy-year-old women, and how it set fire to couches where lovers slept, and how it shattered rib cages, and how it allowed its war protesters to spit in the faces of cops, and how the Mafia took hold of the boardwalks, and how fathers used daughters as ashtrays, and how bar fights spun out of control, and how perfectly good businessmen ended up urinating in front of the Woolworth Building, and how the mayor wheezed and wheedled and lied while the city burned down to the ground.”

But they’re Solomon’s thoughts and not necessarily those of the author, who manages to find something redemptive, or at least hopeful, in the lovely dying fall that is the book’s last chapter. The attack on the Twin Towers isn’t mentioned as out-of-towner Jaslyn negotiates contemporary Manhattan, but its legacy is felt in the changed atmosphere, where a casual joke at an airport can lead to unwelcome repercussions. And it’s felt, too, in the lyrical, elegiac prose as the outwardly poised though insecure young woman seeks to come to terms with the city that destroyed her mother.

“We stumble on,” Jaslyn reflects, “bring a little noise into the silence, find in others the ongoing of ourselves. It is almost enough.” This magnificent novel, with its concern for lost souls in a city of lonely millions, is more than enough.

LET THE GREAT WORLD SPIN. By Colum McCann. Bloomsbury, 14.99 sterling

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