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.”
It is hard to exaggerate how good Rules is, but it is fair to note a few false notes. The largest is the effortless acceptance of Katherine Kontent by the New York society of 1938. In the novel’s first pages, Katey muses that “you can always tell a rich New York girl from a poor one.” And especially in 1938, accent was a giveaway: Think about the gap between, say, George Plimpton’s mid-Atlantic accent, or that of Katharine Hepburn, and middle-class speech of the day. Clothing, and the means to buy the right clothing, was another. Barely surviving on her secretary’s wage, how would Katherine Kontent have had the money even to approximate a few Café Society outfits? I don’t doubt that Katey could adopt the mannerisms of the upper class, but there would be a good many missteps along the way, and Towles doesn’t show us one.
My other quibble is that Rules shows us a New York almost devoid of Jews. There’s just one: a secretarial pool colleague of Katherine’s who makes a cameo appearance that doesn’t amount to as much as it initially promises. One other, a nightclub owner, gets only a mention. There are no Jewish lawyers or brokers or aspiring socialites here; yet in 1938, WASP society had been seeking to close the gates on well-educated, well-heeled Jews for 20 years or more.
And there are moments when Rules is a little too Art Deco, too much burnished chrome and pleasing curves, not enough rough-hewn oak and hand-forged iron. But just when I began to wonder if Amor Towles had spent too much time polishing—he wrote the book in one year, but revised it for three—Rules shook off its occasional stateliness and soared. Because I read it on Kindle, I can say exactly when it happened: a little over three-quarters of the way through. From there on, this novel moves at a fever pitch, exalted and gripping at once.
Towles is not just brilliant, he is wise; but he is also inexperienced in the novelist’s art. He has said in interviews that he wrote a novel before Rules and kept it in a drawer but has spent his adult life as an “investment professional.” He is eager to let us know (once again quoting from elsewhere) that “I could work without an overwhelming sense of urgency to be published. I could just keep refining my craft until I was convinced I had something worth sharing.” But as he probably understands, part of mastering one’s craft is a matter of putting in the time. As he has his narrator say, “To have even one year when you’re presented with choices that can alter your circumstances . . . shouldn’t come without a price."
Ann Marlowe is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute and blogs for World Affairs.