The famous 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers is a central motif in this unwieldy paean to the adopted city of Dublin-born McCann (Zoli, 2007, etc.).
Told by a succession of narrators representing diverse social strata, the novel recalls Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), except that where Bonfire was deeply cynical about Reagan-era New York, McCann’s take on the grittier, 1970s city is deadly earnest. On the day that “the tightrope walker” (never named, but obviously modeled on Philippe Petit) strolls between the Twin Towers, other New Yorkers are performing quieter acts of courage. Ciaran has come from Dublin to the Bronx to rescue his brother Corrigan, a monk whose ministry involves providing shelter and respite to an impromptu congregation of freeway underpass hookers. Corrigan chastely yearns for Adelita, his co-worker at a nursing home. Claire, heiress wife of Solomon, a judge at the “Shithouse” (Manhattan criminal court), has joined a support group of bereaved mothers whose sons died in the Vietnam War. With much trepidation, she hosts the group—including Gloria, Corrigan’s neighbor and the only African-American member—at her Park Avenue penthouse. Two of Corrigan’s prostitute flock, Jazzlyn and her mother Tillie, are picked up on an outstanding warrant, and he accompanies them to their arraignment in Solomon’s courtroom, where the newly arrested sky-walker is among those waiting to plead. Cocaine-addled painters Blaine and Lara, once again fleeing the Manhattan art scene, also flee the accident scene after their classic car clips Corrigan’s van from the rear as he’s driving Jazzlyn home. (Tillie, having taken the rap for her daughter, is in jail.) Peripheral characters command occasional chapters as well, and this series of linked stories never really gels as a novel.
Unfocused and overlong, though written with verve, empathy and stylistic mastery.