Life is a leap into the void, a dance of joy mixed with sorrow, every step along the way carrying with it the possibility of death, but also the promise of great joy and happiness. It’s a lonely journey, mostly traveled solo, a great balancing act, a performance of desperation and love and ultimately ending that way – alone. Colum McCann places before us examples of these lives that could be almost random, accidental selections. These lives (and there are many etched here seamlessly) are placed in New York, and the point of reference is a line stretched between the New York Twin Towers, walked on by Phillipe Petit on August 7, 1974.
Does life have its ironies? Yes it does. Does life yield up metaphors for the whole from the incidental, the mundane, the profane? Yes it does. At 1:42 in the accompanying video, there is a long shot of Petit about a third of the way between the towers as a large airliner passes in the opposite direction. Perspective shows the aircraft about to pass above. But our now universal memory has the plane crashing into the tower, a chilling precursor of events 37-years later both real, imagined, and dreamt. Or, as McCann notes in his post-script:
A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don’t fall apart.
We are introduced to the core group first. The brothers: the vibrant and tragic Corrigan (John, but known only as Corrigan) and his older, more uptight brother, Ciaran. Orphaned in their teens, Corrigan moves to New York, with Ciaran to follow. Corrigan, always an outsider with a spiritual obsession, has informally become a monk and a patron saint of sorts to a group of prostitutes in the worst part of the Bronx. Chief among these is Tillie and her daughter Jazzlyn, both of whom are ‘on the walk’. Tillie’s mother before her also lived the life. Tillie’s “babies” (her grandchildren) will crop up again as young grown women. There’s also Adelita, a Guatemalan nurse, Corrigan’s would be girlfriend. There’s Lara, a hopeful artist, whose life is forever changed when her path crosses with the Corrigan’s.
The second ‘group’ includes Claire, a wealthy middle-aged woman in Manhattan (married to a judge, Solomon Soderberg), who has joined a support group for women who have lost children in Vietnam. Claire bonds with Gloria, a black woman from the Bronx, who has lost more than her share of children to the war. These two core groups lives will intersect in several ways, none of which seem contrived in the least. It’s masterful plotting and storytelling.
There are several other minor characters: the other prostitutes, Lara’s husband Blaine (there only to flesh out Lara’s story), Fernando The Imagist, The Kid, both of whom seem only inserted to give a flavor of New York at the time (1974), I suppose. And of course, not a minor character at all, there is Phillipe Petit himself, and his walk, the only ‘real’ character and ‘real’ event in the novel that binds it all together quite metaphorically – although Petit has direct (in McCann’s vision) contact with Judge Soderberg.
McCann’s novel is divided into four “Books”, each book divided into Chapters. We leave one story and enter another, increasingly the stories “spin” and the lines blur between them, lives are entered, lives intersect, lives are impacted. Hovering above it all, the spectre of Petit.
The Corrigan’s grew up with their mother in a mostly single parent household, their father (a physicist) having left years before. It was not an unhappy childhood: they “enjoyed each other”. The check came every week without fail, although it was never spoken of.
It might’ve been easy for me not to like Corrigan, my younger brother who sparked people alive, but there was something about him that made dislike difficult. His theme was happiness—what it is and what it might not have been, where he might find it and where it might have disappeared.
I was nineteen, and Corrigan was seventeen, when our mother died.
The father shows up for the funeral. They hadn’t seen him for 16 years. In New York, Ciaran finds his brother in a slum tenement giving aid and comfort to the prostitutes, as he attempts to understand him.
Corrigan wanted other people’s pain. He didn’t want to deal with his own. I felt a pulse of shame too, for feeling that way. The silence of brothers.
For the prostitutes, it’s not an easy life, there are things that go with the territory, the abusive pimps, the danger of disease – and beatings.
“Once, this guy, this asshole, this quadruple motherfucker, he used a telephone book on me. You want to know something about the telephone book? Lots of names and not one of them leaves a mark.”
Tillie is a wonderful character, a person who couldn’t shake the path of inevitability. With just a modicum of advantages, she might have turned out completely differently. She’s funny and one glimpses, behind the toughness, a tenderness and an intelligence that the world has no use for. I just love this:
If you think of the world without people it’s about the most perfect thing there ever is. It’s all balanced and shit. But then come the people, and they fuck it up. It’s like you got Aretha Franklin in your bedroom and she’s just giving it her all, she’s singing just for you, she’s on fire, this is a special request for Tillie H., and then all of a sudden out pops Barry Manilow from behind the curtains. At the end of the world they’re gonna have cockroaches and Barry Manilow records…
The first introduction to Claire comes as she’s preparing to host the group of grieving mother’s for the first time. She’s the last to host, and is nervous and worried. Worried that they will no longer like her, given her ‘class’, which they will not have realized until they meet in her penthouse. McCann writes a lovely set-up of the preparations to host, an hnomage of sorts to Mrs. Dalloway.
She allows herself a smile and goes back along the corridor to the living room. Flowers in place. Sun bouncing off the white furniture. The Miró print above the couch. The ashtrays placed at strategic points.
When Claire begins to talk about her boy, Joshua she drifts in and out of reveries. She remembers what he had said to her about war and how changed he seemed in his letters.
She recognized a new depth in him, a candor. The war was about vanity, he said. It was about old men who couldn’t look in the mirror anymore and so they sent the young out to die. War was a get- together of the vain. They wanted it simple—hate your enemy, know nothing of him.
Talking to Gloria, Claire realizes what it is about “the walking man” (Pettit).
And then she knows now what it is about the walking man. It strikes her deep and hard and shivery. It has nothing to do with angels or devils. Nothing to do with art, or the reformed, or the intersection of a man with a vector, man beyond nature. None of that. He was up there out of a sort of loneliness. What his mind was, what his body was: a sort of loneliness. With no thought at all for death.
[in between is a list of the ways to die in a stream of consciousness litany]
A stupid, endless menu of death. But death by tightrope? Death by performance?
The world spins. What are we here for? What do we want? To be remembered? To “leave a mark”. These are ambitious goals that possibly negatively impact others in ways unforseen. I’d like to think of a simpler world, where we “settle” for love and happiness. But that too can be a difficult to attain goal. There are no perfected paths to contentment. Gloria had no luck in her life – at least on the love end. Happiness though, she found in other ways. Her parents had set the bar too high for love, with their true devotion to each other.
That was the sort of everyday love I had to learn to contend with: if you grow up with it, it’s hard to think you’ll ever match it. I used to think it was difficult for children of folks who really loved each other, hard to get out from under that skin because sometimes it’s just so comfortable you don’t want to have to develop your own.
Some people think love is the end of the road, and if you’re lucky enough to find it, you stay there. Other people say it just becomes a cliff you drive off, but most people who’ve been around awhile know it’s just a thing that changes day by day, and depending on how much you fight for it, you get it, or you hold on to it, or you lose it, but sometimes it’s never even there in the first place.
A wonderfully accomplished work, full of thoughtful insights and characters to remember. Zoli, which I read in the summer of 2007 was very good, but this one far surpasses that one. I’ve been lucky enough to finish two of the best books I read all year in December. Both in my Top Five. THe other one (I still need to review it) has a lot to say about “Happiness” as well: Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers.