A debut novel probes the soul of New York. Mar 5, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 24 • By ANN MARLOWE
And under the influence of the cradlelike rocking of the train, your carefully crafted persona begins to slip away. The superego dissolves as your mind begins to wander aimlessly over your cares and your dreams; or better yet, it drifts into an ambient hypnosis, where even cares and dreams recede and the peaceful silence of the cosmos pervades. It happens to all of us. It’s just a question of how many stops it takes.
That is Amor Towles on the experience of taking the New York subway, a couple of pages into Rules of Civility, and a sample of why this is one of the finest first novels of recent years, simultaneously a delicious historical fiction of the 1930s and a timeless coming-of-age story of a circle of gifted young people in Manhattan. It is also a highly philosophical novel, whose gravitas grows and deepens as the plot progresses.
The heroine is Katey or Katherine Kontent (one of a couple of bad name choices here), a beauty from a working-class Russian Orthodox family in Brooklyn. She’s what a Lithuanian friend of mine used to call an ethnic blonde, as opposed to a WASP blonde, and Rules portrays the combination of chance and courage that propels Katey from the slow torment of work in the secretarial pool of a law firm into a glamorous career that suits her talents.
The novel is nearly as much about her onetime roommate Eve Ross, another beautiful blonde, trying to win her independence from her wealthy Indiana family and escape a bland Midwestern culture. Rules begins as a love triangle with Katey and Eve competing for the interest of Tinker Grey, a prosperous banker with matinee-idol looks, a way with words, and a mysteriously hostile painter-brother. As the cast of characters grows, so does the novel’s moral weight.
When Katey walks into a movie at midpoint and stays to watch the first half in the next showing, she remarks, “Like most movies, things looked dire at the midpoint and were happily resolved at the end. Watching it my way made it seem a little truer to life.” Katey is a wit, but she has a firm commitment to the notion of right and wrong, and to moral responsibility: “I guess there are two sides to every story. And as usual, they were both excuses.” Katey’s religious sense is implied rather than spelled out—she seeks refuge in churches when she needs to be alone during the workday—but she, and Towles, see life in moral terms:
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.
We are not in hipster Brooklyn anymore—the philosophical, if not actual, location of a large amount of contemporary fiction.
Yet Towles also has a feel for the acid aphorism. Katey is given some good advice by Anne Grandyn, an immensely wealthy, beautiful, and stylish widow of 50 or thereabouts who becomes her anti-mentor: “Most people have more needs than wants. That’s why they live the lives they do. But the world is run by those whose wants outstrip their needs.” The sparring of these two women, who compete in some sense for the soul of Tinker Grey, is smart enough to evoke the great English comic novelists of the 1920s and ’30s, especially Ivy Compton-Burnett:
—You’re rather well read for a working-class girl, she said with her back to me.
—Really? I’ve found that all my well-read friends are from the working classes.
—Oh my. Why do you think that is? The purity of poverty?
—No. It’s just that reading is the cheapest form of entertainment.
—Sex is the cheapest form of entertainment.
—Not in this house.
In that last line, Katey alludes to the fact that Anne is buying sexual favors. And as this suggests, Rules portrays a society of considerable extramarital sexual activity. Two couples live together without being married, and dating couples consider it possible that a date will end in sex. Was 1938 that racy? Towles thinks so—based on having spent a lot of time with three of his grandparents who lived into their nineties: “These conversations (with my grandmother in particular),” he has written elsewhere, “solidified my view that her generation was less Victorian than my parents’ generation. I think the 1920s and 1930s had a certain openness that was countered by the conformity of the 1950s.”
The use and abuse of words that pack a punch12:00 AM, Oct 13, 2010 • By BARTON SWAIM
Recently I watched a 10-minute YouTube video purporting to be the “100 Greatest Movie Insults.” It’s a pretty diverse collection, though as you’d expect it favors American films from the 1980s and later.
Conspiracy theories told the hard-boiled way.Mar 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 23 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
Blood’s a Rover
by James Ellroy
Knopf, 656 pp., $28.95
The rise of the bestselling novel.Dec 30, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 16 • By BRIAN MURRAY
Popular Fiction Since 1900
by Clive Bloom
Palgrave Macmillan, 292 pp., $60
I'M NOT SURE who started the rumor--it may have been Sam Goldwyn or, more probably, Marshall McLuhan--but somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, people came to believe that books were doomed. The future belonged to film and television, it was assumed, the prevailing media in an increasingly visual age: Queen Victoria read books, but we will watch video screens.
It didn't exactly turn out that way. The book lives: Just visit your local Waterstone's or Borders or Barnes & Noble.
Our holiday gift to you: We offer our choices for books to enjoy over the holidays or to consider as last-minute gift ideas.11:00 PM, Dec 19, 2002 • By
Editor's Note: We'll be on hiatus for the holidays, so next week, we'll be posting some of our favorite recent pieces from both The Weekly Standard and The Daily Standard--some holiday-related, some not. Enjoy, and have a terrific and safe holiday season!
William Kristol, editor
READ ANYTHING by the greatest living American comic writer (besides Andy Ferguson), Donald E. Westlake.
Man and automata.Dec 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 15 • By HUGH ORMSBY-LENNON
Flesh and Machines
How Robots Will Change Us
by Rodney A. Brooks
Parthenon, 260 pp., $26
by Michael Crichton
HarperCollins, 384 pp., $26.95
A Cultural History of Ventriloquism
by Steven Connor
Oxford University Press, 448 pp., $35
Designing and Building Warrior Robots
by William Gurstelle
Chicago Review Press, 256 pp., $19.95
Behind Deep Blue
Building the Computer that Defeated the
World Chess Champion
by Feng-Hsiung Hsu
Princeton University Press, 298 pp., $27.95
Are We Spiritual Machines?
Ray Kurzweil vs.
Crime fiction for Christmas.Dec 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 15 • By JON L. BREEN
A Crossworder's Holiday
by Nero Blanc
Prime Crime, 224 pp., $22.95
A Puzzle in a Pear Tree
by Parnell Hall
Bantam, 308 pp., $23.95
The Christmas Garden Affair
by Ann Ripley
Kensington, 293 pp., $22
THE TRADITION of telling ghost stories at Christmas has a venerable lineage, reaching back well into the Middle Ages. Christmas detective stories have a shorter history.
Marvel Comics resurrects the Rawhide Kid, with one little twist.11:00 PM, Dec 11, 2002 • By VICTORINO MATUS
MARVEL COMICS IS ON A ROLL. First there was the blockbuster "X-Men" movie that generated almost $300 million worldwide. Then came "Spider-Man," which grossed more than $800 million. Coming in February, Ben Affleck will star in "Daredevil." In that same month, Marvel will be bringing back to comic book stores a cowboy hero known as the Rawhide Kid. From 1955 to 1979, Rawhide Kid battled the outlaws of the Wild West as part of a Western-themed series that included other heroes like the Two-Gun Kid and Kid Colt.
Michael Connelly's mysterious Los Angeles.Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By DAVID KLINGHOFFER
"Chasing the Dime"
by Michael Connelly
Little, Brown, 400 pp., $25.95
WILLIAM J. BRATTON, having won his crime-fighting laurels in the first Giuliani administration, was recently inducted as the new chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. There was something discordant about the erstwhile top cop of New York City taking over in Los Angeles. The two cities are just so different.
It's not a question of statistics, though in L.A. violent crime is rising at an alarming rate, murders having vaulted upward by 27 percent since 2000.
In brief: Novels by Joel Rosenberg and Richard Dooling and Bill Wyman's Rolling Stones tome.Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By
BOOKS IN BRIEF
The Last Jihad
by Joel C. Rosenberg
Forge, 304 pp., $24.95
AMID THE HEMMING AND HAWING about how to confront Saddam Hussein, Joel Rosenberg, former aide to Steve Forbes and Benjamin Netanyahu, uses fiction to convey the threat Iraq poses to international security. Though the picture painted by Rosenberg is disconcerting, the possibilities he raises are real.
Several years after Bush completes his second term and his successful war on terror, another popular Republican president is surfing a surging economy and unprecedented domestic security.
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" after a century and a half.Dec 16, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 14 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
THE CLOSE OF 2002 brings with it the close of the 150th anniversary of the publication of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." But you would hardly have known it from America's premier journals and magazines, which showed little interest in giving "Uncle Tom's Cabin" its due in the course of the year. No other book before or since has had so dramatic an effect on American consciousness--or American history--as Harriet Beecher Stowe's epoch-making novel.
William F. Buckley's historical fiction.Jun 10, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 38 • By VICTORINO MATUS
by William F. Buckley Jr.
Harcourt, 366 pp., $25
William F. Buckley Jr.
edited by William F. Meehan III
ISI, 250 pp., $29.95
EVEN THE NAME of Nuremberg has a frightening ring. The medieval city was home to princes, painters, and the Meistersingers. But in the 1930s it was also home to the notorious Nuremberg rallies, where Adolf Hitler gathered his minions and extolled the greatness of his thousand-year Reich.
Why we ought to read James Farrell.May 6, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 33 • By GERALD ROBBINS
A Trilogy Comprising Young Lonigan, the Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, and Judgment Day
by James T. Farrell
Penguin, 912 pp., $20
JAMES FARRELL is not exactly forgotten.