In Amor Towles’s witty and slyly brutal debut novel, Rules of Civility, the protagonist is one Katey Kontent. You stress the second syllable: con-tent, as in “satisfied.”
Only problem is, Katey isn’t.
It’s 1938 as the story opens, and Katey has just about had it with the narrow options facing a young woman in Depression-era Manhattan. By day she’s a drone in a typing pool. By night she’s free to roll her eyes at men’s advances in bars and dance halls, so long as she drags herself back to her Flatiron District boardinghouse before its midnight curfew.
Enter Tinker Grey — a well-spoken, seemingly well-heeled banker who brings some zip into the lives of Katey and her roommate, Eve. No sooner has Tinker ushered Katey to a seat at the swanky 21 Club, however, than she begins to wonder what it means to have arrived. How did this Tinker fellow get to be so wealthy, anyhow? And why is he so evasive about his past? Snooping in his apartment, Katey discovers a book on his nightstand listing 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation,” written by George Washington when he was a teenager. Why would a purported member of the gentry be clinging to some fusty manual on good manners?
The core plot of Rules of Civility solves the various mysteries surrounding Tinker, but the book’s heartbeat is Katey’s voice — brassy, no-nonsense, acutely observant. Though she’s intrigued by Tinker, she is too leery of his character to pursue a romantic involvement. (As they say on Facebook, “It’s complicated.” In part Katey obligingly defers to her roommate — Eve seems more interested in Tinker — but Towles suggests there’s something dark about the dude, too: When his godmother drops a few cryptic details about Tinker’s personality, Katey’s people radar warns her to steer clear of that particular blip.) Katey is also instinctively skeptical of upper-crust social circles, even as Tinker eagerly helps her infiltrate them. Watching her supposed social “betters” swan about at a racetrack, she observes, “This was like the circles of Dante’s Inferno — populated with men of varied sins, but also with the shrewdness and devotion of the damned.”
Towles’s neat trick as a debut novelist is to free Katey to question the integrity of high society while giving the reader ample opportunity to luxuriate in it. She’s rightfully wary of folks for whom “the improbable would be made probable, the implausible plausible and the impossible possible.” But riding in a chauffeured Bentley has its charms, she has to admit, and the novel dishes out heaping silver spoonfuls of posh living inside country houses, tony restaurants and private clubs. Like so many fellow migrants to Manhattan, Katey is trying to shuck off her past: She even changes her first name (from the original “Katya”) to scrub away the aroma of her upbringing among rough-hewn Russian-immigrant stock in Brooklyn. What she can’t abide is naked striving, particularly among young women fishing for a rich husband and a bourgeois perch.
That’s why Katey is inevitably disappointed in Eve, whom Tinker begins to console — and control — after she’s badly injured in a car crash involving all three. Eve’s blithe behavior soon unleashes Katey’s inner Dorothy Parker: “With the lights of the city draped behind her and the martini glass on the carpet, [Eve] looked like an advertisement for being in a car wreck.” In time, Tinker and Eve’s relationship will morph into a different sort of disaster. But by then Katey will have moved on, snaring a job at a startup magazine called Gotham that promises to expose New York society — “its lovers, its letters, and its losers.”
The word “moxie” was practically coined to describe self-made women such as Katey. But who among us is truly self-made? Towles keeps returning to that question. From sweet talk to noblesse oblige to open scheming, he suggests, everybody’s got a means to make somebody else do something. Social climbing is a bit like the card game Katey plays called honeymoon bridge, which strikes “an unusually elegant balance between intention and chance.” Marionette strings snap into view in many a scene; what makes Katey a charming and worthy narrator is her dawning awareness of who’s pulling those strings, and her constant willingness to yank back.
Towles, a New York money manager by day, brings color to the cars and doorman buildings and martini shakers of the era, though he picks the wrong hues for a few vignettes: Katey hears Billie Holiday singing “Autumn in New York” on the radio even though Holiday didn’t record the jazz standard until 1952, and she closes out 1938 reading Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, which would not be published in the United States until the following year, under the new title Murder for Christmas. These are forgivable errors, but not unimportant ones in a book that aspires to a detailed re-creation of giddy New York life on the eve of World War II.
Still, Towles gets the emotional heft of things right: The “civility” of his book’s title is very often a put-on. True civility is stiff and prim — traits nowhere in evidence in a splashy, dishy novel like Rules of Civility. Shortly before taking the job at Gotham, Katey lands a gig at an old-fashioned literary publisher, where “not only did they have manners, they thought them worth preserving.” Katey — and the reader — spend very little time there. Who’d want to hang around a place like that when there’s a big, unruly city to conquer?
Mark Athitakis is a book reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at www.markathitakis.com