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McCann on Wire

April 30, 2010


Man on Wire. This short phrase, written in the terse, matter-of-fact diction typical of police documentation, was used in the NYPD’s arrest report for Philippe Petit, a French tight-rope walker who on August 7th 1974 spent an hour suspended in mid-air between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. (Petit would later describe the event to interviewers using more poetic language; in a conversation with Studio 360‘s Kurt Anderson, he claimed, with convincing sincerity, to have fallen in love with the Two Towers, which imbued his death-defying act with the pathos of romantic consummation– the guy’s an artist, to be sure). Man on Wire, as it turns out, also struck film director James Marsh as a fitting title for his documentary on Petit’s legendary high-wire walk. It was released in 2008 to much acclaim, even winning the Best Documentary Oscar, which Pettit kindly received and, with characteristic buffoonery, proceeded to balance upside-down on his chin.

Pettit’s amazing feat is also the subject of a new novel. Let the Great World Spin, written by Colum McCann, was published last year, and though its title doesn’t make a direct reference to the tightrope walk– Man on Wire had already been claimed as the title of Pettit’s memoir– or the walker himself– McCann’s description of the the event, however, could be no other– is central to the story. It takes place mainly on the day of Pettit’s walk, and begins by presenting the point of view of bystanders who have stopped to observe the high-wire artist from the sidewalks 110 stories below. None of them are quite sure of what they are seeing:

Those who saw him hushed, on Church Street, Liberty, Court Land, West Street, Fulton, Vessey. It was a silence that heard itself. Awful and beautiful. Some thought at first that it must have been a trick of the light. Something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it might be the perfect city joke. Stand around and point upwards until people gather, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were staring upwards at nothing at all. Like waiting for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag. But the longer they watched, the surer they were. He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped dark against the gray of the morning. A window washer, maybe, or a construction worker, or a jumper. Up there, at the height of a hundred and ten stories, utterly still, a dark toy against the cloudy sky.

McCann c.

Throughout its course, the novel focuses on some eleven fictional protagonists, each of whom occupies his or her own chapter. Among these characters are an Irish monk who comes to Brooklyn, a Guatemalan nurse, an aging prostitute living in the Bronx, as well as the judge who, in a later chapter, oversees her courtroom trial. The individual dramas of these characters, moving as they are in themselves, are lent added meaning by the figure of the tightrope artist, that graceful figure stepping, and at times dancing, on a thin line a thousand feet up in the sky. The metaphor of the walker underscores the stories of the novel’s protagonists, setting patterns of grace, beauty and redemption that reappear in their lives and counterbalance their plights. The characters, intertwined as they are around the leitmotif of the walker, also bring these same themes to bare on the actual destruction of the Two Towers, a catastrophe still two nearly three decades into their future.

“This act of brazen beauty that he did across the World Trade Center towers was an act of creation that to me sort of stood in perfect opposition to the act of destruction twenty seven years later,” McCann said in an interview with Open Source‘s Cristopher Lydon. In his review of McCann’s novel, Johnathon Mahler wrote in The New York Times that “the metaphorical possibilities of the walker — the paradox of this innocent, unsanctioned act of ‘divine delight’ being carried out between two buildings that would one day be so viciously and murderously destroyed — are hard to ignore, particularly in a novel so concerned with the twin themes of love and loss.” When he stepped out over the edge of the first tower that fateful morning, Philippe Pettit could not have known that the roof where he stood would, in his own lifetime, lay in a mangled pile on the street below. Could he have known of the fiery demise of these buildings, I think he would have been pleased with the idea of another artist using his craft– this time a pen– to erect something beautiful out of the rubble.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Lauri Moyle permalink
    May 1, 2010 11:53 am

    Thanks for this Vincent. Will have to go out and look for the newly erected beauty.

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