The Rules of Civility

The Rules of Civility

Miriam R. Kramer

As we enter fall, I decided to snuggle with my sleepy pug and a lyrical story of young New Yorkers set in a moneyed, elite world at the end of the Great Depression. Amor Towles, also known for his celebrated A Gentleman in Moscow, has constructed an alternately down-at-heels and dazzling comedy of manners in The Rules of Civility.

Set primarily in 1937-38, both those who have come to make their fortunes and entitled heirs treat New York City as their playground. New York typist Katey Kontent works to support herself, discovering Manhattan with her roommates from various walks of life.

Katey, a second-generation immigrant from Brighton Beach, lives in a Depression-era boardinghouse with her friend, Eve Ross, a lovely, independent Midwesterner who has come to New York with limited funds. Her cool, urbane voice guides the novel, describing the people and places that cross her path. She navigates all levels of society with intelligence and wit, able to throw out bons mots and chameleon her way through a crowd.

When the youthful pair of Katey and Eve head out to a melancholy jazz club on New Year’s Eve, 1937, their gleaming futures seem so far off as to be nonexistent. Then they meet Tinker Grey, a beautifully dressed young banker, seemingly the heir to family wealth, privilege, and a stellar education.

In this chance encounter, Katey, Eve, and Tinker find themselves in a mutually enchanted triangle. Young New Yorkers in wildly different circumstances, they set off into the New Year ready to experience each others’ worlds with no knowledge of the changes their meeting will make to their relationships and mutual fortunes.

As a future editor and Towles’s narrator, Katey is an avid and omnivorous reader. She imbibes everything from modern poetry and books to nineteenthcentury British and Russian novels, with a special penchant for the gorgeous simplicity of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.

Literature is its own persona in this work. Greek and Roman epics, Victorian novels, and popular thrillers such as Agatha Christie novels haunt and inform the plot. Echoes of novels and poems such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, and T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock shape the characters and sometimes echo their journey throughout the novels.

The Rules of Civility deliberately evokes works like Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, as young hopefuls with shady pasts and nebulous futures come together to form fierce friendships. F. Scott Fitzgerald could be lurking around the corner, writing Tinker Grey as the next incarnation of Jay Gatsby. Katey Kontent might take over Dorothy Parker’s role as a cutting wit at the Algonquin Hotel’s Round Table.

Katey’s roommate Eve, a wild child and woman of action, prefers Ernest Hemingway and hardboiled detective novels to refined female authors such as Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, and the Brontës. As she asks Katey, “Didn’t they all kill themselves?” When Katey says “I think Woolf did,” Eve answers laughingly “The rest of them might as well have.” Tinker Grey, influenced by adventure novels such as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and works by James Fenimore Cooper, has a boyish, naively enthusiastic vision of his path throughout the world.

Yet Tinker Grey’s handbook to life is George Washington’s youthfully penned guide, The Rules of Civility. In this book, the future President laid out 110 rules by which people should engage themselves in a civilized society. Tinker follows these rules at any cost. While Katey first finds them charming, they eventually render her enraged, seeing them as a trickster’s handbook to fooling friends and lovers.

Along with literature, New York itself infuses the story as an alternately glittering and gritty presence. Katey, Eve, Tinker and friends criss-cross places such as Wall Street’s Trinity Church, the lower West Side, Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side, and the Plaza Hotel just southeast of Central Park. Long Island and Westport become their weekend playgrounds, as the well-educated heirs of industry crash parties and go boating for madcap adventure. Katey, writer, editor, and observer, loves her city and shrewdly observes all the worlds within it.

When Katey introduces Tinker to Walden, he takes it as a primer for learning to live simply. In the end, a book written far away from civilization becomes Tinker’s guide to himself. He betters Jay Gatsby and the many hustlers who find New York their place to score. Katey herself flourishes to tell her worldly, wistful tale.

Readers fond of magazines such as the New Yorker and Vanity Fair will gravitate toward The Rules of Civility. Towles’ book is a layered, poignant work, revealing hard truths about his characters. Yet this sparkling, often humorous novel is more than its influences and echoes, or even evocations of its physical surroundings. It is a beautifully written, classic story of coming to the city to make one’s way, reinventing oneself and putting on masks only to change or drop pretenses as needs be.

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