‘Rules of Civility’ by Amor Towles

2012, 368 p.

I had to wait for a long time for this book to become available at the library, and it was well worth the wait. I just loved it, and didn’t want it to finish. The story is set in New York in 1937, and is evocative of all those black-and-white films with the Empire State Building in the background and imbued with New York glamour. There’s shades of Gatsby here too, through the first-person narration of a young woman of humble background who is drawn into the milieu of fabulously wealthy people.

The frame story introduces us to Katey Kontent on the 4th October 1966 who, along with her husband, attends a photographic exhibition ‘Many are Called’ at the Museum of Modern Art. This exhibition features never-before-seen portraits taken by Walker Evans with a hidden camera in the late 1930s on the New York subways with a hidden camera. These black-and-white images are of just ordinary people, taken without their knowledge or consciousness. One image in particular attracts her attention. She knows that well-dressed, urbane business man, and she knows that an image of a gaunt, disheveled man is him too- it is Tinker Grey.

And thus we are taken back to New Years Eve 1937, when Katey, along with her room-mate Eve Ross, first meet Tinker in a nightclub, as they try to eke out their money for drinks to see them through to the new year. Eve, is blonde, with dimples “so perfectly defined that it seemed like there must be a small steel cable fastened to the center of each inner cheek” (p.15) Tinker is rich and good fun, and both girls – neither of whom is rich – are swept up into a life of parties and nightclubs until it all comes to a sudden halt. Despite Katey and Tinker’s attraction to each other, life goes off in a different direction. Katey takes us through the year of 1938, each time taking care to note the exact date, as she changes her job, and negotiates her way around a wealthy, dissolute milieu with Wallace Wolcott, Dicky Vanderwhile, and Anne Grandyn. Meanwhile, Eve and Tinker go off on other trajectories. One one level, Katey learns that wealth and power can influence events and give people the wherewithal to manipulate and intervene in other people’s choices: on another level, there is still that aspect of chance and unexpected event that sends everything awry.

The title of the book comes from the Young George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation which Katey discovers amongst Tinker’s possessions. She realizes that these 110 homespun maxims are more influential on Tinker than she at first thought, especially the last one: “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire called Conscience”. And it was that last one that brought Tinker to the dishevelled state that the photographer Walker Evans captured in his photograph.

At the end of the book, and looking back on that year of her life, the older Katey says:

It is a bit of a cliché to characterize life as a rambling journey on which we can alter our course at any given time- by the slightest turn of the wheel, the wisdom goes, we influence the chain of events and thus recast our destiny with new cohorts, circumstances, and discoveries. But for the most of us, life is nothing like that. Instead, we have a few brief periods when we are offered a handful of discrete options. Do I take this job or that job? In Chicago or New York? Do I join this circle of friends or that one, and with whom do I go home at the end of the night? And does one make time for children now? Or later? Or later still?…

Life doesn’t have to provide you any options at all. It can easily define your course from the outset and keep you in check through all manner of rough and subtle mechanics. To have even one year when you’re presented with choices that can alter your circumstances, your character, your course- that’s by the grace of God alone. And it shouldn’t come without a price.

p. 323

I’ve been oblique about the plot, because I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice to say that I really enjoyed reading this book and feel as if I have been in the hands of a master storyteller.

My rating: 9.5/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

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