As a restless teenager in a small Romanian town I would read Kerouac and dream of New York. My life was ordinary and predictable and I craved for the adventure that New York represented, the multitude of people, the high highs and the low lows, the alcohol and the jazz, the sex and the rock’ n roll. My New York was a mythical, imaginary place, where everything lacking in my life was taking place. With such high expectations you can only be disappointed when confronted with the real New York. But still it is hard to get disappointed by New York altogether, there’s too much in it to be awed by, even though the experience of actually being there is not quite as life changing as you would have expected. You don’t bump into Neal Cassady and end up drinking and talking like mad in a bar, but you may bump into his shadow as you walk around, just one of the anonymous tourists taking pictures of places that give you a strange sense of deja vu.
For this trip though, I have found a perfect companion: Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. It’s a novel and an ode to the city, however lame that might sound, with its people, its gutters and its high end lofts. It’s a novel without a main character, because the main character is the city, a web of streets and of surprising, sometimes invisible connections. On the day when the real life Philippe Petit walked a tight rope between the two World Trade Center towers, the lives of several characters are changed by fortuitous encounters. A judge generously lets a young heroin addict prostitute go without charging her, only for her to end up in a deadly car crash a few hours later, the death of an Irish monk driving the car ends with his brother marrying the hit and run driver’s wife and so on. Every chapter is told from the perspective of a different character and in the end they all add together like puzzle pieces, revealing the surprising connections. Make no mistake, there is nothing forced or sensational about these coincidences, however Dickensian they may seem, although the tone often verges on the sentimental. I did appreciate the ventriloquism of the author, who writes from the perspective of a whore, a Latina nurse, an old Black woman, an Irish man, a hip young artist and a rich upper-middle class mother of a soldier who died in the Vietnam war, although at times I did have the feeling that these were creative writing exercises. My favorite was the voice of Gloria, an over weight Black woman who lives in a spotless apartment, up in a block of flats, surrounded by drug addicts, pimps and prostitutes and spends the money the state gives her as compensation for the three sons she has lost in the war, on opera tickets.
What I found touching, but at the same time a bit problematic about this author is that he has the immigrant’s unconditional love of America, there is a certain positivism in him that makes him see the light even in the darkest corners of this country, that I find a bit pollyannaish of him. Still, although I can rationally be quite critical of the book in many ways, the truth of the matter is that I’ve gotten engrossed in it all the way and it has been one of my best recent reading experiences, probably due to the context too. And I was happy to see we have the same Kerouac affinity in this interview.
My own bits and pieces of the city:
And the appropriate soundtrack: