I spend a lot of time thinking about story-telling, because that’s what I do for a living. My interest, retro though it increasingly seems, is pretty narrowly confined to the novel, as readers here know. As I’m reading, I’m also writing. Sometimes what I read makes me feel OK about what I write, and sometimes (as in the case of Zola’s novels) it adds depth to what I’m working on. But sometimes a book comes along that makes me feel like a total amateur — and Rules of Civility is one of those.
I saw this book coming. People (actual humans, not just the Amazon bots) kept drawing it to my attention. But, you know, a novel about upper-crust Manhattan in 1938? How yawn-making, thought I. Well, here’s the lesson of the day for writers young and old: You can tell any story you want to and people will read it, if you get the voice right.
Because really, this isn’t new material. The central character, Tinker Grey, is a later version of Jay Gatsby, with a more interesting sex life and a conscience. Our narrator is one of those wisecracking working-class girls who reads too much. There’s a steno pool, grand parties on Long Island, an Adirondack camp, sundry smoky night-clubs, and a grand magazine start-up called Gotham. Plus an ocean of alcohol. Once I got launched on the tale, though, I could hardly bear to put the book down. Simply put, Rules of Civility recounts one year of Katey Kontent’s interactions with a group of glamorous young men and women, and her discovery of the ever-shifting border between appearance and reality. The author, Amor Towles, brackets the tale cleverly by describing a series of Walker Evans photographs taken on the subway in the period. The frame is a flashback: Katey is older and wiser as she narrates. The frame is also a formal device warning us that artifice will follow, and Towles often tips his hat to his predecessors, quoting Edith Wharton here, Hemingway there, Dickens often. He turns them into colleagues. Katey is Pip, and so is Tinker, and that’s all the plot summary I have for you.
But despite the frank artificiality, Rules of Civility also has a heart. Katey’s account is rueful but not cynical. She’s open to wonder, and she’s very funny. On the editors at a literary publishing house: “They were English public school professors who had misread the map in the Tube and haplessly gotten off at the World of Commerce stop.” At a restaurant: “The waitress came over like a cat to the corner of a couch. For a second, I thought she was going to arch her back and exercise her claws on his shirt.” About class distinctions: “And you can tell a rich Boston girl from a poor one. After all, that’s what accents and manners are there for.”
Besides, who can resist a book in which a character exclaims, “–Doesn’t New York just turn you inside out?”
Damn, I wish I’d written that.