Before the walk, the tightrope walker used to stage smaller acts of performance art. He would go to Washington Square Park in New York’s West Village and walk on a wire strung between light poles. Knowing that the drug dealers who watched him would mug him for his tips after he finished performing, he picked up the hat full of money, rode a unicycle across the tightrope, jumped off, and rode away. He came back the next day for the tightrope, and from then on the dealers let him stay.
This insight into the tightrope walker’s past shows his mischievous charm, a personality trait that is seemingly essential to his task. This defiant disposition points to the idea that the walk itself is something of an artistic protest against the imposing and authoritarian power structures in America.
The tightrope walker rented a cheap apartment in the East Village, where he was robbed one night while visiting his neighbor (he had walked a rope strung between their two fire escapes). The city, he found out, was vicious, and he couldn’t trust anyone (even his neighbor, who never invited him back).
Much like Tillie’s eventual realization that she is alone with her suffering, the tightrope walker seems to have learned early on that he would have to be careful with who he trusted in New York, a city that can, on a bad day, carelessly abuse an innocent dreamer, forcing him to doubt himself.
From time to time the tightrope walker would perform at parties because he needed the money. Although he was hired as a musician, he would tell the hosts beforehand that he could not promise that he would perform any tricks; he might simply stand there the entire evening, and they would still have to pay him. The mystery of this proposition was appealing, and he became a popular party entertainer in wealthy circles.
Again, the tightrope walker’s charming and mischievous disposition is apparent. This anecdote also serves to paint the walker as an infectiously likable man, a quality that is important to keep in mind as he breaks the law and performs a stunt that could—if botched—hurt innocent onlookers.
The tightrope walker’s arrogance is a virtue on the wire. He tunes out everything when he’s on the tightrope. When a police helicopter swings into his vision as he walks between the Twin Towers, it doesn’t bother him, nor do the hordes of officers on both buildings, all screaming at him to get off. He wants to stay there for a while, knowing that he might never have the chance to experience this feeling again. He allows the shouts and the helicopter engines to fade to the background of his thoughts as he stands in the exact middle of the wire with his eyes closed, filling his lungs with the city air.
The walker’s ability to tune out the helicopters and policemen is similar to the kind of tunnel-vision devotion Corrigan often experienced when pursuing his faith. It could be argued that the art of calculated danger and its inherent beauty is spiritual for the tightrope walker; he has faith in himself and his project, and this allows him to lend it his undivided focus.
Realizing that he only ever thought about the first step on the wire, the tightrope walker decides that he needs to figure out how he will finish the walk—he wants to end with some sort of flourish. Making like he is finally acquiescing to the police officers’ pleas that he get off the wire, he starts walking toward one of the buildings, but he splays his feet to the sides; it’s a trick, the duck walk. Suddenly he is running like this along the tightrope. When he reaches the end, he bounds into the waiting officer’s arms, and the cop calls him a “motherfucker” while smiling.
We have already somewhat experienced this moment—the moment in which the walker gets off the tightrope—through Sable’s narration to The Kid, but now we are afforded a more in-depth look at its execution. Still, the repetition reminds us of the idea that many of the characters we’ve met in the previous pages of Let the Great World Spin are indeed watching this moment, essentially creating a convergence of perspectives and experiences.
For years and years the tightrope walker returns to the moments he spent on the wire. The memory comes to him randomly and without warning. Suddenly he will be thousands of feet above the city again, the adrenaline still rushing through his body.
Just as the novel itself returns periodically to the walk, the tightrope walker himself constantly revisits the memory. In this way, the event is presented as a moment that has the ability to lend meaning to even the most unrelated and trivial aspects of everyday life.
Upon coming off the wire, the tightrope walker is exhausted and thirsty, but he can’t relax until he sees that somebody is taking down the wire, which could break and gravely injure someone. When he sees a man going to loosen it, though, he falls into relief and fatigue.
The tightrope walker’s worry importantly proves that, though he is mischievous, he is committed only to beauty, not malice or destruction. This moment humanizes him and rounds out his personality as a compassionate man.
Handcuffed, the tightrope walker is brought through the crowds at the bottom of the towers. With a paper clip he stole on the way, he picks the lock and raises his hands to the chanting crowd. Before the police officer turns around, though, he puts the handcuffs back on. As reporters and spectators congregate around him, a journalist asks him why he did this walk in the first place. But he doesn’t like this question because he believes that the mere fact that the towers are there is reason enough. As the officer guides him into the police car, photographers take pictures in a frenzy. The driver turns on the sirens and takes him away.
From this passage arises the idea that beauty requires no justification—it is intrinsically worthwhile. This is a sentiment that resonates throughout the book, evident in Corrigan’s vague appreciation of beauty and religion, in Fernando’s admiration of graffiti that few will ever see, in Tillie’s fond memory of the simple beauty that was the week she spent in the Sherry-Netherlands, and so on. In short, the appreciation of beauty as a goodness in and of itself is something that unites characters throughout the novel.