- Rules of Civility
- Viking Adult, 352 pp.
New York State of Minds
December 31, 1937 was a tough time to make a New Year’s resolution. The Great Depression was back for a return engagement. Hitler was on the march. It was hardly an era for great expectations.
In Rules of Civility, a spirited novel set in the 1930’s, three young New Yorkers solve this New Year’s dilemma by making resolutions for each other. Two of the threesome, Katey and Eve, are penny-poor roommates on the prowl for handsome Wall Street types to pay the tab for their holiday revels. By sheer luck, they latch on to Theodore “Tinker” Grey, exactly the kind of companion they are looking for. Handsome, considerate, charming in a bashful sort of way, Tinker’s sterling character is perfectly complemented by the stack of freshly-minted twenty dollar bills in his wallet.
Tinker, in his turn, is bemused by his lively compatriots. Tongue in cheek, he asks Katey about her last name, Kontent.
“Katey Kontent! Wow! So are you?”
Katey responds, “Not by a long shot.”
Katey Kontent is a Brooklyn-born working girl. Like the characters in the Dickens’ novels she reads, her last name evokes interior attributes and aspirations. What indeed is the content of her complex personality? Engaging, yet allusive, ambitious and generous, Katey is as real and as mysterious as the person sitting beside us on the bus or train.
In moments of doubt or crisis, Katey finds solace by going to empty churches. There she can be alone with her soul in a place of devotion devoid of believers. Where the devout once joined together to worship God, Katey, like most 20th century pilgrims must go it alone. After a weekday visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Katey muses on the amazing proximity of St. Patrick’s to the gilded statue of Atlas at Rockefeller Center:
Could there have been a more contrary statue to place across from one of the largest cathedrals in America? Atlas, who attempted to overthrow the gods on Olympus and was thus condemned to shoulder the celestial spheres for all eternity – the very personification of hubris and brute endurance… Here they resided, two worldviews separated only by Fifth Avenue, facing off until the end of time or the end of Manhattan, whichever came first.
Sacred and profane. That’s New York City for you. And that is exactly the dilemma facing Katey during 1938, the year when her choices will determine the rest of her life. With more than a dash of “hubris and brute endurance,” she is forcing the issue of her personal destiny. Defying the odds, Katey seizes an opportunity to work at the Condé Nast publishing firm. But her dream job may cost her the love of several young men she encounters during the course of the novel. The price tag of her daring career move may be her future happiness.
This brief sketch of its plot may well do an injustice to Rules of Civility. The theme of making a life choice between love or ambition has been a staple of literature since the Aeneid. You might think that this novel has little new to recommend it besides the unorthodox choice of the Depression as a setting for a romance.
Rules of Civility, however, is a book of amazing depth. In this, his first novel, Amor Towles reveals an exceptional flair for character development. Whether unveiling fresh insights into protagonists like Katey or Tinker or evoking the inner lives of secondary characters like Nathaniel Parish, the gentlemanly, old school editor who gives Katey her start in the publishing world, Towles’ command of human dynamics never falters.
Towles’ depiction of New York during the 1930’s is equally vivid — and accurate. The Thirties were a special moment in the life of the “Big City.” The old and the new of New York were delicately juxtaposed like the melody and lyrics of a Rogers and Hart tune. It was a tough time to live in New York, but a great period and a great place to be alive.
And being alive to life’s opportunities is what motivates Katey Kontent. In a display of crisp prose and psychological insight, Towles gives Katey her voice as she recalls the sudden transformation of her life.
On the morning of Friday, July first, I had a low-paying job at a waning publisher and a dwindling circle of semi-acquaintances. On Friday, July eighth, I had one foot in the door of Condé Nast and the other in the door of the Knickerbocker Club …That’s how quickly New York comes about — like a weather vane — or the head of a cobra. Time tells which.
Katey, fortunately, has the benefit of time to help her come to terms with the diverse cast of friends and/or enemies whom she encounters during her watershed year of 1938. Towles begins the novel in 1969, when an older and wiser Katey comes across photos of Tinker taken by the celebrated photographer, Walker Evans. The first dated from 1938, the other a year later. The photos, part of an exhibition of clandestine snap-shots of New Yorkers on display at the Museum of Modern Art, showed the material and spiritual consequences of 1938 for Tinker, the result of misplaced affections and moral compromises.
Gazing at the photos, Katey sees in stark visual terms “how quickly New York comes about.” The well-dressed, Wall Street executive of 1938 had fallen from grace and pleasure. The 1939 Tinker is gaunt and ill-kept. Yet there is something in his eye that testifies to a moral healing, a spiritual regeneration that had occurred during the eclipse of his career prospects and wealth.
Had the New York City cobra struck at Tinker? And if so, whose features appeared, mask-like, on the cobra’s head?
Was it the face of Eve? Tinker has taken Eve into his care after she was injured when his car collided with a truck on an icy night early in 1938. Did the cobra wear the features of Anne Grandyn? This beautiful and sophisticated New York society woman introduces herself as “Tinker’s godmother. But it does not take long before she is revealed as a significant “other” in the tangle of loves and aspirations.
Or does the cobra bear the countenance of Katey herself? Katey nurtures both love and anger for Tinker, as their life paths separate and then intersect in a moment of truth at the end of the novel. In the climatic confrontation of these thwarted lovers, the balance of inner strength swings in a direction that ultimately does justice – at great cost — to them both.
Rules of Civility takes its title from a list of accepted behavior points that George Washington copied as a young boy. Katey finds a book of Washington’s writings among Tinker’s meager possessions at the end of the novel. And there she reads the last and most important injunction on the young Washington’s list:
Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.
Both Tinker and Katey take Washington’s advice to heart. It is Towles’ gift to his protagonists — and to his readers — that the “Little Spark of Celestial fire” is so much in evidence in the pages of this sensational literary debut.