For all the pleasures of a short course in themes of great American literature with none of the homework, read Rules of Civility.
Amor Towles' sleek debut novel, set in the glittering and gritty New York City of 1938, nods smartly to Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Henry Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper — and borrows its title from George Washington — yet makes something fresh out of those familiar materials.
Central to this elegant book's plot is that American-as-apple-pie pastime: reinventing the self (and doing one's best to hide the old one). Pretty much none of the people in Rules of Civility are what they seem, and just how they misread each other — and we misread them — makes for a fascinating dance.
Chief among the novel's influences is Fitzgerald; Rules of Civility is in many ways a riff on The Great Gatsby, complete with a wealthy but elusive hero, an unattainable golden girl and a car crash. And just like Nick Carraway, Towles' narrator, Katey Kontent, becomes as intriguing as the more boldly drawn characters she describes to us.
Although the story takes place in 1938, the prologue introduces us to Katey in 1969, enjoying "that sweet unfounded complacency of a well-heeled Manhattan middle age." At an opening of an exhibition of photos of subway passengers taken in the '30s by Walker Evans (one of dozens of real details Towles uses to ground his story), she's rocked by a once-familiar face that appears in two of the photos, shot a year apart.
In one, handsome young Tinker Grey wears a custom shirt and cashmere coat. In the other, he's threadbare, ill-shaven, dirty. "But," Katey tells us, "his eyes were bright and alert and trained ahead with the slightest hint of a smile on his lips, as if it was he who was studying the photographer." Her husband assumes, as might anyone expecting the usual trajectory of the American dream, that the well-dressed photo is the later one, taken after Grey had weathered the Great Depression. The arc of the real story is very different.
As the body of the book opens on New Year's Eve 1937, Katey is working as a secretary in a Manhattan law firm, where "I sutured split infinitives and hoisted dangling modifiers and wore out the seat of my best flannel skirt." She has brushed off her Russian immigrant family in Brighton Beach with few second thoughts, but she's eager to move on to the next, better self — which, for a young woman of that day, means finding a man who can give her a lift up the social ladder.
Katey's partner in partying is another young woman who lives at her rooming house. Eve Ross is "one of those surprising beauties from the American Midwest. . . . 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." Eve has affluent roots in Indiana, but she's as eager to get free of her family as Katey was.
The two are listening to jazz in a Greenwich Village dive on New Year's Eve, trying to make $3 last all night, when Grey walks in. "Dibs, said Eve" after one look at his cashmere coat and royal blue eyes. When he ventures out into the storm to fetch Champagne and later gallantly goes to the aid of a little boy losing a snowball fight, he proves he's perfect.
They become a rollicking social threesome, but Katey senses a deeper connection with Tinker. Before she can explore it, a skidding milk truck on an icy street changes the game. After his car crashes into a lamppost, Tinker and Katey walk away, but Eve rockets through the windshield. She survives, shattered and scarred, and Tinker devotes himself to caring for her. Katey thinks she's lost the game — although, months later, Eve will tell her, "Watch out for the boys who think they owe you something. They'll drive you the craziest."
Before then, much will happen. Katey will meet Tinker's godmother, the formidable Anne Grandyn. At a racetrack outing, pointing out an aged millionaire with his much younger fiancee, the independent Anne tells Katey, "If I were your age, I wouldn't be trying to figure out how to get into Carrie's shoes — I'd be trying to figure out how to get into Jake's." The complexities of what Anne means by that are among the book's more delicious surprises.
Katey will also get a glamorous job at a magazine called Gotham that sounds very much like the New Yorker, and she will expand her acquaintance with privileged men, discovering a lot of merry halfwits and a few gentlemen when she doesn't expect them, all the while dipping in and out of the orbit of Tinker and Eve.
Towles has a lovely way with language and a deft wit, and his characters are that rare thing, both convincing and surprising. Among the book's many charms is his skillful, besotted portrait of the city in which it takes place, from the 21 Club to the Bowery: "Doesn't New York just turn you inside out."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435.