I’ve seen this book at booksales and in bookstores, and always thought it looked interesting, but it wasn’t until a student brought it in, put it into my hands, and insisted I would love it that I actually started reading it. I am so glad she lent me her well-worn copy. This novel circles around a tightrope walker’s antics on a wire between the Twin Towers on a hot August day in1974. Each segment profiles a different character, but also shows us how intricately connected we all are. In the author’s note at the back, he admits to being interested in those people who walk a tightrope just an inch off the ground.
I was struck first by the precision of language and McCann’s ability to really show me a scene and make me see it. The vivid visual depictions were masterful, and not overdone. Aside from these delightful images he conjures up for you, there are many insights into what it means to be human. For example, on travel: “It struck me that distant cities are designed precisely so you can know where you came from. We bring home with us when we leave.” Related to this, a sense of place permeates the novel, and can be seen in observations like this one: “Everyone knows where they are from when they know where it is they want to be buried.”
McCann also writes this as a sort of love note to New York City in the aftermath of 9/11. He says of the city: “Strange things occurred precisely because there was no necessary regard for the past. The city lived in a sort of everyday present.” Later, when a character studying graffiti contemplates new tags and thinks of ways to make better, more original art, he considers: “It was only genius if you thought of it first. A teacher told him that.” Of course, as a high school teacher myself, it is easy to see this as something I might say to a student.
I highly recommend reading this National Book Award winner if you missed it the first time around.