Thursday, June 14, 2012

Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles

Well, if this novel isn't just the frog's eyebrows!  Just after I'd finished it, I noticed that The Independent voted Rules of Civility one of the '50 Best Summer Reads'.  Every day is a summer day in Kuala Lumpur, but point taken. This book has all the style of a silk summer dress, all the effervescence of a glass of Chandon & Moet, and a cast of plucky people.

New York City, 1938. It's the Jazz Age. Our guide and narrator is Katie Kontent (accent on the last syllable, thank you), a feisty young woman living in a boarding house and working in a secretarial pool at a law firm. Also staying at the same boarding house is Evelyn, equally brash but from the mid-west. They meet when Evey spills a plate of pasta with sauce into Katie's lap. The landlady recommends chablis to remove the tomato sauce stains, and the two young women disappear into the bathroom with the bottle for a sodden confabulation. A native New Yorker, Katie sums up the allure of the Girl from Illinois:
In New York it becomes so easy to assume that the city's most alluring women have flown in from Paris or Milan. But they're just a minority. A much larger covey hails from the stalwart states that begin with the letter I -- like Iowa and Indiana and Illinois. Bred with just the right amount of fresh air, roughhousing, and ignorance, these primitive blondes set out from the cornfields looking like starlight with limbs.
Every morning in early spring one of them skips off her porch with a sandwich wrapped in cellophane ready to flag down the first Greyhound headed to Manhattan -- this city where all things beautiful are welcomed and measured and, if not immediately adopted, then at least tried on for size. One of the great advantages that the midwestern girls had was that you couldn't tell them apart. You can always tell a rich New York girl from a poor one. And you can tell a rich Boston girl from a poor one. After all, that's what accents and manners are there for. But to the native New Yorker, the midwestern girls all looked and sounded the same.
Or maybe their differences (readily apparent in Des Moines) were just dwarfed by the scale of our socioeconomic strata -- that thousand-layered glacial formation that spans from an ash can on the Bowery to a penthouse in paradise. Either way, to us they all looked like hayseeds: unblemished, wide-eyed, and God-fearing, if not exactly free of sin.
Evey and Katie go to a jazz club on New Year's eve with enough pocket money to cover one gin each per hour. Their pacing is off, though, so by 11:00, they're short on cash and feeling their oats. Enter Tinker Gray, a handsomely-dressed young gentleman of means. Tinker is not entirely what he first appears to be. Some reviewers have likened Rules of Civility to The Great Gatsby, but the similarities are superficial. Tinker Gray may have constructed an affluent facade (with George Washington's "Rules of Civility" as his primer), but he is not Jay Gatsby. He is far more complex.

And Towles gives us no woman as vacuous and flighty as Daisy Buchanan. Evey frequently comments that she's willing to be under anything as long as it isn't someone's thumb. Katie is quite capable of supporting herself, if not in a grand manner then at least well enough to guarantee her independence. When the time comes to make her next career move, she wrangles an offer from an august elderly editor by claiming to have been looking for work with his arch-rival. With his blessing, she steps another rung up the ladder to a brash new magazine venture.
On the morning of Friday, July first, I had a low-paying job at a waning publisher and a dwindling circle of semi-acquaintances. On Friday, July eighth, I had one foot in the door of Conde Nast and the other in the door of the Knickerbocker Club -- the professional and social circles that would define the next thirty years of my life. That's how quickly New York City comes about -- like a weathervane -- or the head of a cobra.  
The publisher of this sharp new lifestyle magazine is Mason Tate. He hires two women, Katie and Alley, for the single position as his assistant, telling them both that he'll keep the one which proves herself more valuable. Instead of angling at each other's throats, the two women make a pact to become equally and mutually indispensable, and it succeeds brilliantly.
In most offices, the loosely buttoned blouse could take the ambitious girl from reasonably proficient to utterly indispensable in the turn of a calendar year, but not in Mason Tate's. From the first, he made it clear that his affinities lay in another hemisphere. So we could save the fluttering of our eyelashes for the boys at the ballpark. He barely even looks up from his papers as he rattles off Alley's instructions with aristocratic remove. "Cancel my meeting with the mayor on Tuesday. Tell him I've been called to Alaska. Get me all the front covers of Vogue, Vanity Fair and Time for the last two years. If you can't find them downstairs, take a pair of scissors to the public library. My sister's birthday is August first. Get her something timid from Bendel's. She says she's a five; assume she's a six."
He pushes a pile of blue-lined copy in my direction. "Kontent: Tell Mr. Morgan that he's on the right track, but he's a hundred sentences short and a thousand words too long. Tell Mr. Cabot yes, yes and no. Tell Mr. Spindler he's missed the point entirely. We still don't have a strong enough cover story for the first issue. Inform the lot of them that Saturday's been canceled. For lunch I'll take ham on seeded rye with Muenster and relish from the Greeks on Fifty-third."
In suitable unison: Yes Sir.
Her friendship with Tinker Gray brings Katie into contact with New York's upper crust, and here too Towles gives us nicely fleshed-out characters, not cliched nor predictable. Wallace Walcott can have his pick of the debutantes, but he'd rather take Katie out to the club and teach her to shoot. Unlike the debutantes, Katie doesn't seem enthralled by his wealth.
Wallace Wolcott had to be in the sights of every young socialite without a ring on her finger. Most of the able-bodied girls in town would know his net worth and the names of his sisters. The industrious ones knew the names of his hunting dogs too.
In the end, whether they have wealth or not, these characters prove to have substance, pluck and integrity, and Amor Towles presents them with panache. I don't know why The Independent chose this as a summer read -- it's no better suited to a hammock or beach chair than, say, a sofa in front of a roaring fire -- but it certainly earns its spot on any recommended books list. 

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