The big-time honors — an Academy Award, the Caldecott Medal — have gone to other works about Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk atop the World Trade Center towers. But what’ll really blow your mind is Petit’s own first-person account of the entire operation.
I hope you have seen the Academy Award-winning documentary, Man on Wire, and read the Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (or even watched the animated short it’s been made into). If you haven’t, you really should.
But without To Reach the Clouds (now being published as Man on Wire, the film’s title), those other versions wouldn’t have been possible — or nearly as powerful. Petit plotted his unauthorized, quarter-mile-high performance literally for years, assembling an eclectic gang of conspirators of varying degrees of reliability, in order to create an artistic performance that lasted less than an hour and could have cost him his life.
The tale is in the style of “true crime” but also partakes of the sort of mathematical rhapsody perhaps only a Frenchman can pull off. Every element of the plan needed painstaking exactitude, but when the moment finally came for the “le coup,” the glorious minutes of the walk itself, it’s all passion. As Petit observes, “This cannot be measured.”
The book is thoroughly illustrated, drawing on Petit’s own meticulous documentation and burnished with the moody, monotone photographs of Petit’s main conspirator and chief photographer, Jean-Louis Blondeau. Although it’s his first book written in English, the prose ably conveys Petit’s manic, and sometimes egomaniacal, creativity. The man, his quest, and this book are off the charts.
To Reach the Clouds is the most compelling and beautiful book I read in 2009.
Considered in this review: Philippe Petit, To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk between the Twin Towers (New York: North Point Press, 2002). Note for parents: This book deserves an R rating for strong language and sexual situations — to say nothing of the fact that the whole story is about an extremely dangerous and criminal act.