Pocket Review: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

Rules of Civility
Amor Towles
Viking, 2011

Let thy ceremonies in Courtesy be proper to the Dignity of his place with whom thou conversest for it is absurd to act the same with a Clown and a Prince.

Thus reads the 42nd entry in Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, a list of social maxims put together by George Washington in his teenage years. This little volume of arcana figures heavily in Amor Towles’ debut novel, also titled Rules of Civility, as does the question of just who is a clown and who’s a prince. In New York of 1938, where old money, new money, and no money found themselves rubbing elbows in all sorts of surprising ways, the answer was not always evident. And that’s a large part of what makes this tale of social mores in the big city so much fun.

Towles’ heroine, Katey Kontent, embodies all the wonders of post-Depression class restlessness in New York. Born Katya, to Russian immigrant parents in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, she’s moved into a Manhattan boarding house, found a job typing in a downtown legal firm, and is on her way up. On New Year’s Eve, she and her roommate Eve Ross hit a Village jazz dive called the Hotspot to see out 1937 and see how far they can stretch their last three dollars. There, by chance, they meet a charming, enigmatic young man of means named Tinker Grey. And thus begins a year of ups and downs for Katey, loves and dalliances, career moves and social striving and not a few hard truths.

That two lovely young women who adopt an eligible fellow should find themselves in something of a triangle is no surprise, though the tension between them is tempered by friendship. And for a while, even as the attraction between Katey and Tinker simmers, the three have some good times running around the city, from the 21 Club to a Lower East Side underground joint called Chernoff’s, and it’s a toss-up as to which end of the social spectrum is more wonderful. My vote goes to Chernoff’s:

…though it was popular with Russian gangsters it was also a gathering place for Russia’s competing political émigrés. On any given night you could find the two factions encamped on either side of the club’s insufficient dance floor. On the left were the goateed Trotskyites planning the downfall of Capitalism and on the right were the sideburned tsarist distaff dwelling in dreams of the Hermitage. Like all the rest of the world’s warring tribes, these two made their way to New York City and settled side by side. They dwelt in the same neighborhoods and the same narrow cafés where they could keep a watchful eye on one another.

Their delicate balance can’t last, of course, and is cut short by that that deus of all machinas, a car accident. Eve is badly injured, and Tinker, who was at the wheel, installs her in his apartment so he can care for her. Katey, ever resourceful, strikes out for a walkup apartment downtown, and so their stories truly begin. Each of them turns out to be full of surprises—nobody here is exactly who they seem to be. Tinker, who comes off as a winning but indecisive rich boy, is not exactly any of those things; and Eve, an appealing iconoclast at the book’s beginning, lets her physical scars turn her bitter. While Katey is everything you want in a protagonist, and does a fine job of carrying the story—she’s smart, literate, and pragmatic, with a dash of vulnerability beneath the snappy surface—she’s not immune to the temptations of class. Her father’s solid old-world values still resonate, but at the same time the crowd she falls in with, the young scions of old-money families and their Adirondack lodges, penthouses and parties, is seductive.

There’s a lot going on in Rules of Civility, not only love and betrayal and a young woman’s search for her own equilibrium over the course of one very eventful year, but the effervescence of prewar New York and the world beyond. Towles has a light touch with his historical context, giving us the portrait of an almost timelessly recognizable Manhattan:

One night in April, I was standing in the Wall Street stop of the IRT waiting to hoi polloi home. It had been twenty minutes since the previous train and the platform was crowded with hats and sighs and roughly folded afternoon editions. On the ground nearby was an overstuffed valise bound with string. But for the absence of children, it could have been a way station in a time of war.

But the time of war is upon these young folk, even as they remain blissfully wrapped up in their own domestic dramas. A couple of the more idealistic fellows, of both high and low birth, ship out to do their part in the Spanish Civil War, and of course in retrospect we all know what a turning point 1938 was for the rest of the world, not just Katey Kontent.

Still, this is her story, and it’s a good one; any myopia is all in context. The supporting cast is stellar as well—we meet Ashcan School artists in dingy bars, women named Bitsy who ride horses, cutthroat editors of gossip magazines, manipulative rich widows, and a host of others. It’s all quite lively and evocative of the period, something like Dawn Powell without the ingrained cynicism. Arguably, though, the star of this book isn’t really Katey Kontent, but New York City itself. The sets where all this deft social interplay takes place—the grand hotels, the fire escapes of outer-borough tenements, the docks, the office buildings—are, in a way, the stars. Though Rules of Civility is strongly character-driven, there’s no getting around the fact that Towles has written a truly sparkling love letter to New York:

As we sat there, dusk was falling and the lights of the city were coming on one by one in ways even Edison hadn’t imagined. They came on across the great patchwork of office buildings and along the cables of the bridges; then it was the street lamps and the theater marquees, the headlights of the cars and the airplane beacons perched atop the radio towers—each individual lumen testifying to some unhesitant intemperate collective aspiration.

If there’s any disappointment, it’s that Katey eventually does ascend the social ladder to live that comfortable, moneyed existence she spends much of the novel questioning. This isn’t a spoiler, as the book’s action is bracketed and put in context by scenes of an older, married Katey. I think I might have wanted her to hold out, although she’s a character whose happiness you can’t help rooting for. Still, George Washington’s Rules of Civility—those cordial aphorisms Tinker purported to live by, to varying degrees of success—have nothing on Katey’s own:

Uncompromising purpose and the search for eternal truth have an unquestionable sex appeal for the young and high-minded; but when a person loses the ability to take pleasure in the mundane—in the cigarette on the stoop or the gingersnap in the bath—she has put herself in unnecessary danger.

Now those are rules I can live with, and I do hope that Katey, with all her verve and appeal, remembers them too. The fact that I’m wishing good things for a novel’s heroine long after I’ve shut the book speaks well of her, and of Amor Towles and his Rules of Civility. It’s a fun, glittery world to slip into, and I enjoyed my time there thoroughly.


2 Comments to Pocket Review: Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

  1. nbm's Gravatar nbm
    August 4, 2011 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    You, and those tight little samples, make this sound tempting indeed. (But Amor Towles? Really?)

  2. Kat Warren's Gravatar Kat Warren
    August 4, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Permalink


  1. By on February 22, 2014 at 6:28 pm

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