Rules to Live By

Near the close of the summer a book hit the shelves that had all the literary critics crossing their eyes they were so excited. The book was Rules of Civility written by Amor Towles, first-time novelist and principal at a Manhattan investment firm (sounds scripted, eh?), was immediately hailed as a “love letter to New York in the 30s” and compared to the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

It’s a novel about exactly what you’d expect you to be about with a setting like 1930s New York. Flashy, society climbing twenty-somethings carving out their existence in The City. Katey Kontent narrates in a voice that is fascinatingly modern. She’s the daughter of Russian immigrants living in a boarding house when we meet her. Her roommate, Eve, is from the MidWest. Together they race around Manhattan having a grand ol’ time.

New Year’s Eve 1937 finds them in a seedy Jazz Club drinking their way through their last 15 cents when Tinker Grey wanders in reeking of wealth and prestige. The girls instantly latch on to him and promise to show him a wonderful time.

Those are the basic ingredients and with a pre-war setting like Manhattan this novel combined to make possibly the most elegant novel I’ve read so far this year. I read it fresh off of The Beautiful & Damned by Fitzgerald (which was a snorefest) and Rules of Civility was refreshingly just what I wanted.

Last year when I went back to school I took a class called Modern American Lit. We spent the whole semester reading Fitzgerald and Hemingway. It was helpful to go through the class with a Hemingway expert (she illuminated a lot of the symbolism for me). I actually enjoyed reading most of what we read in that class. But I could not focus on The Beautiful & Damned. What I found absolutely wonderful about Rules of Civility was that it had all of the glamour and social climbing of Fitz and Ernie without the extreme bitterness and cynicism. I was particularly tickled that two of the characters in Towles’s book travelled to the Keys for a vacation. I spent the better part of that first semester doing research on Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not which was referenced several times throughout RoC.

Towles did an amazing job of creating a sense of total immersion into the world of New York City in 1938: the cars, the food, the music, the tension. It really did read a little bit like a love letter.

I believe my favourite bits about this novel are the source of inspiration and the fact that Towles is not a novelist or literature professor. He’s just a dude with a regular job who saw some inspiring photographs (like the one below) and created a story. Granted, a well-connected dude who makes enough money at his real job that he could pursue novelling as a leisure activity. All the same, I’m encouraged by him and his writing prowess.

“Many are Called” collection by Walker Evans

Also, the name of the novel is drawn from George Washington’s 110 rules for civil interaction. All 110 rules are included as an appendix to the novel. They provide much of the motivation for one of the main characters.

It’s a fairly quick read full or wonderful allusions and references and all of the great things that make New York so magnificent. Pick up a copy and wrinkle your brain a little bit (but avoid ironing it).


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