On the last night of 1937, twenty-five-year-old Katey Kontent is in a second-rate Greenwich Village jazz bar when Tinker Grey, a handsome banker, happens to sit down at the neighboring table. This chance encounter and its startling consequences propel Katey on a year-long journey into the upper echelons of New York society—where she will have little to rely upon other than a bracing wit and her own brand of cool nerve.
With its sparkling depiction of New York’s social strata, its intricate imagery and themes, and its immensely appealing characters, Rules of Civility won the hearts of readers and critics alike.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
It was the last night of 1937.
With no better plans or prospects, my roommate Eve had dragged me back to The Hotspot, a wishfully named nightclub in Greenwich Village that was four feet underground.
From a look around the club, you couldn’t tell that it was New Year’s Eve. There were no hats or streamers; no paper trumpets. At the back of the club, looming over a small empty dance floor, a jazz quartet was playing loved-me-and-left-me standards without a vocalist. The saxophonist, a mournful giant with skin as black as motor oil, had apparently lost his way in the labyrinth of one of his long, lonely solos. While the bass player, a coffee-and-cream mulatto with a small deferential mustache, was being careful not to hurry him. Boom, boom, boom, he went, at half the pace of a heartbeat.
The spare clientele were almost as downbeat as the band. No one was in their finery. There were a few couples here and there, but no romance. Anyone in love or money was around the corner at Café Society dancing to swing. In another twenty years all the world would be sitting in basement clubs like this one, listening to antisocial soloists explore their inner malaise; but on the last night of 1937, if you were watching a quartet it was because you couldn’t afford to see the whole ensemble, or because you had no good reason to ring in the new year.
We found it all very comforting.
We didn’t really understand what we were listening to, but we could tell that it had its advantages. It wasn’t going to raise our hopes or spoil them. It had a semblance of rhythm and a surfeit of sincerity; it was just enough of an excuse to get us out of our room and we treated it accordingly, both of us wearing comfortable flats and a simple black dress. Though under her little number, I noted that Eve was wearing the best of her stolen lingerie.
Eve Ross . . .
Eve was one of those surprising beauties from the American Midwest.
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. Sure, the girls from the various classes were raised in different houses and went to different schools, but they shared enough midwestern humility that the gradations of their wealth and privilege were obscure to us. 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 ashcan 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.
Hailing from somewhere at the upper end of Indiana’s economic scale, Eve was indisputably a natural blonde. Her shoulder-length hair, which was sandy in summer, turned golden in the fall as if in sympathy with the wheat fields back home. She had fine features and blue eyes and pinpoint dimples so perfectly defined that it seemed like there must be a small steel cable fastened to the center of each inner cheek which grew taut when she smiled. True, she was only five foot six, but she knew how to dance in two-inch heels—and she knew how to kick them off as soon as she sat in your lap.
That New Year’s, we started the evening with a plan of stretching three dollars as far as it would go. We weren’t going to bother ourselves with boys. More than a few had had their chance with us in 1937, and we had no intention of squandering the last hours of the year on latecomers. We were going to perch in this low-rent bar where the music was taken seriously enough that two good-looking girls wouldn’t be bothered and where the gin was cheap enough that we could each have one martini an hour. We intended to smoke a little more than polite society allowed. And once midnight had passed without ceremony, we were going to a Ukrainian diner on Second Avenue where the late-night special was coffee, eggs, and toast for fifteen cents.
But a little after nine-thirty, we drank eleven o’clock’s gin. And at ten, we drank the eggs and toast. We had four nickels between us and we hadn’t had a bite to eat. It was time to start improvising.
Eve was busy making eyes at the bass player. It was a hobby of hers. She liked to bat her lashes at the musicians while they performed and ask them for cigarettes in between sets. This bass player was certainly attractive in an unusual way, as most Creoles are, but he was so enraptured by his own music that he was making eyes at the tin ceiling. It was going to take an act of God for Eve to get his attention. I tried to get her to make eyes at the bartender, but she wasn’t in a mood to reason. She just lit a cigarette and threw the match over her left shoulder for good luck. Pretty soon, I thought to myself, we were going to have to find ourselves a Good Samaritan or we’d be staring at the tin ceiling too.
And that’s when he came into the club.
Eve saw him first. She was looking back from the stage to make some remark and she spied him over my shoulder. She gave me a kick in the shin and nodded in his direction. I shifted my chair.
He was terrific looking. An upright five foot ten, dressed in black tie with a coat draped over his arm, he had brown hair and royal blue eyes and a small star-shaped blush at the center of each cheek. You could just picture his forebear at the helm of a schooner—his gaze trained brightly on the horizon and his hair a little curly from the salt sea air.
—Dibs, said Eve.
Excerpted from "Rules of Civility"
Copyright © 2012 Amor Towles.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
"The best novels are the ones that completely transport you to another time and place. This beautifully written debut does just that. With wit, wisdom, and rich language, Towles introduces a cast of unforgettable 1938 New Yorkers, who change the book's heroine in surprising and absorbing ways." --(J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Maine)
Praise for Rules of Civility
“An irresistible and astonishingly assured debut about working class-women and world-weary WASPs in 1930s New York…in the crisp, noirish prose of the era, Towles portrays complex relationships in a city that is at once melting pot and elitist enclave – and a thoroughly modern heroine who fearlessly claims her place in it.” —O, the Oprah Magazine
“With this snappy period piece, Towles resurrects the cinematic black-and-white Manhattan of the golden age…[his] characters are youthful Americans in tricky times, trying to create authentic lives.” —The New York Times Book Review
“This very good first novel about striving and surviving in Depression-era Manhattan deserves attention…The great strength of Rules of Civility is in the sharp, sure-handed evocation of Manhattan in the late ‘30s.” —Wall Street Journal
“Put on some Billie Holiday, pour a dry martini and immerse yourself in the eventful life of Katey Kontent…[Towles] clearly knows the privileged world he’s writing about, as well as the vivid, sometimes reckless characters who inhabit it.” —People
“[A] wonderful debut novel…Towles [plays] with some of the great themes of love and class, luck and fated encounters that animated Wharton’s novels.” —The Chicago Tribune
“Glittering…filled with snappy dialogue, sharp observations and an array of terrifically drawn characters…Towles writes with grace and verve about the mores and manners of a society on the cusp of radical change.” —NPR.org
“Glamorous Gotham in one to relish…a book that enchants on first reading and only improves on the second.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer
Reading Group Guide
Five years ago, three friends and I set out to read some of the "great books"—or those works of literature that would merit rereading several times over the course of our lives. Meeting once a month, we started with Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and have since worked through the works of Twain and Faulkner, Cervantes and García Marquez, Tolstoy and Nabokov—dwelling over dinner on our favorite passages, on themes and ambiguities, sharing our perspectives.
As someone who has written quietly for twenty years, the notion that a group might gather to discuss a book of mine seems something so fantastic it must be a mirage. So, if you've come this far, I owe you my heartfelt thanks.
What follows are some questions for discussion that might have surfaced in my reading group. If you are interested, there is additional content regarding Rules of Civility at amortowles.com including brief essays on Walker Evans and jazz, a 1930s time capsule, etcetera. You may also submit your thoughts or questions there. And if your reading group is meeting for dinner in New York somewhere between Canal and 34th streets, please let me know. If my schedule allows, I will try to stop by.
New York, New York, 2011
ABOUT AMOR TOWLES
Amor Towles was born and raised just outside Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated from Yale University and received an MA in English from Stanford University, where he was a Scowcroft Fellow. He is a principal at an investment firm in Manhattan, where he lives with his wife and two children. This is his first novel.
A CONVERSATION WITH AMOR TOWLES
Q. Why did you decide to write a book set in the late 1930s, and how did you research the period?
I've always had a great interest in the period between 1900 and 1940—because it was a time of such incredible creative combustion.
In retrospect, the pace of change in the arts and industry in the nineteenth century seems pretty glacial. Painting, music, the novel, architecture were all evolving, but at a pretty observable pace. Then in the span of a few decades you have James Joyce, Cubism, Surrealism, jazz, Nijinsky, Henry Ford, the skyscraper, Sigmund Freud, the Russian Revolution, movies, airplanes, and the general upending of received forms in almost every area of human endeavor.
Over the years, I listened to the music, saw the movies, read the novels and manifestos, lingered in front of the paintings. So I really didn't do any applied research for the book. Rather, I tried to rely on my secondhand familiarity with the period to orient my imagination.
Q. Why did you decide to write a book from the perspective of a young woman?
Some writers such as John Cheever and Raymond Carver, seem to draw artistic energy from analyzing the realm of their own experiences—their social circles and memories and mores. I'm one of those who draw creative energy from the opposite. I prefer to put myself in an environment that's further afield and look through the eyes of someone who differs from me in age, ethnicity, gender, and/or social class. I think a little displacement makes me a sharper observer. It's that challenge of trying to imagine what's on top of the—the small thing that's always there on the periphery that somehow brings events into focus.
Q. Were there any personal influences from the 1930s that informed the book?
None of the characters in the book are based on anyone in particular. But three of my grandparents and a great-grandmother lived into their late 90s or early 100s. My maternal grandparents lived across the street from me in the summers and I'd see them every day. Over lunch when I was in my twenties, it was great fun to talk with them about their lives between the wars—when they were young adults. My grandmother, who was simultaneously a woman of manners and verve, fended off marriage proposals until she was thirty because she was having too much fun to settle down. Like the book's narrator, she pushed a rival in furs to drink before ultimately accepting my grandfather's proposal.
To some degree, these conversations (with my grandmother in particular) 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.
Q. Talk about the role of chance encounters in the book.
One of the central themes in the book is how chance meetings and offhand decisions in one's twenties can define one's life for decades to come. I think there is something universal about this dynamic; but it was certainly my experience.
In 1989, I had a fellowship to teach for Yale in China for two years. I came back from California to New Haven to spend the summer learning Chinese, but because of Tiananmen Square, Yale cancelled the program. They gave us each a few thousand dollars and sent us on our way. I had all my belongings in my car and had no idea what to do with myself. As it turned out, an old friend needed a roommate in New York to split the rent, so I moved here.
My first night in the city, I got invited to a party at the home of an acquaintance. There, I met a few people who ultimately became close friends. In retrospect, a number of careers and marriages sprang from the intersection of social circles at that party—but we certainly didn't realize the importance of the encounters at the time. We were just meeting for drinks, making haphazard alliances and cursory decisions, shaping our futures unwittingly.
Q. Do you think Katey's story could have occurred somewhere other than New York?
I certainly hope so. I think the book's themes of self-invention, aspiration, love and loss, are recognizable in any corner of America. But one interesting aspect of New York is that it is a leading capital for advertising, art, broadcasting, fashion, finance, food, journalism, music, publishing, theater, and so on. This means that every year, young people from all over the world with very different backgrounds, interests, and ambitions descend on the city. They are all looking to establish connections (in the E. M. Forster sense as well as the Dale Carnegie sense). This just increases the odds that the person you sit next to at a diner could change your life in very unexpected ways.
Q. Tell us about George Washington and his Rules of Civility.
I'm very interested in periods where there is a density of creative invention: Like the early Renaissance in Tuscany (with Massacio, della Francesca, Botticelli and Donatello), or jazz in the late 50s in New York (with Davis and Coltrane and Monk and Gillespie); or crime drama on TV in the 70s (with Kojak, Rockford, McGarrett, and Columbo). Throughout history there seem to be these brief periods when a group of varied talents come together and advance a whole art form by leaps and bounds. In some semi-competitive or cooperative dialogue, the players bring out the best in each other by spurring inspiration and risk taking, while defining new forms and frontiers. When I find a period like this I like to delve.
One of those periods for me is the revolutionary period in America. Jefferson, Adams, Washington, Hamilton, Madison, Franklin were all men of such sweeping talent and character. In an incredibly short period, they formulated a system of ideals and practical applications, which has served us well for centuries.
Initially, I imagined Tinker as an avid student of the period. But once into the book, I happened to pull a collection of Washington's writings off my shelf, which led off with his "Rules of Civility"—and I knew right away that the "Rules" should be the primary thing that Tinker had studied. My book investigates social stratification & manners, character & appearance, ideals & compromise—and Washington's youthful list somehow seems at the heart of the whole crazy matter.
Q. The book investigates the nuances of social strata in the 1930s. Do you think the influence of class is the same in today's America?
I'm not a sociologist, but it seems to me that the composition of America's social strata has changed in meaningful ways since the first half of the century. The Second World War and the GI Bill were great leveling influences, in which many working class individuals migrated from their ethnic communities toward a more homogenous middle class. At the same time, the aristocratic families of the 1920s began to abandon the outward pomp of cotillions and tails. Wonder Bread, Budweiser and Chock Full o'Nuts found their place in pantries high and low (with consistency and low price being attained at the expense of differentiation and flavor). This convergence has had weird byproducts: The vast of majority of Americans, spanning a wide array of economics (from the statistically rich to the statistically poor), now identify themselves as "middle class." And where in the first half of the century the struggling youth would have aspired to the narrow circles of aristocracy, in recent decades the affluent youth have aspired to the fashion and cadences of the inner city.
But having made these rough generalizations about transformation, I'd say that many aspects of the 1930s social behavior still prevail. We clearly still live in an aspirational society. We have just exited half a decade when virtually every tier of the American economy has borrowed money in order to buy bigger cars and bigger houses with better fixtures. And we still have American youth in pursuit of mobility, though mobility today may mean getting to wear sneakers at a start-up, rather than being accepted to a country club.
Q. Could you describe how the book was written?
In my late thirties and early forties, I wrote a novel set in the farmlands of Stalinist Russia, which I ultimately stuck in a drawer. It's pretty depressing to work on something for seven years and dislike the outcome.
That book had five points of view and a series of complex events that had been roughly outlined. As an investment professional with two young children, this structure proved hellish. Every time I sat down to work on the book, I needed two hours just to figure out where I was. Worst of all, in rereading later drafts, I often found that the material from the first year was the best.
So in launching a new book, I decided it would be a distinctive first person narrative; all events and characters would be carefully imagined in advance; and it would be written in one year. After a few weeks of preparation, I started Rules of Civilityon January 1, 2006, and wrapped it up 365 days later. The book was designed with twenty-six chapters, because there are fifty-two weeks in the year and I allotted myself two weeks to draft, revise and bank each chapter.
I revised the book thoroughly three times over the next three years (mostly making it shorter); but the original constraint of a twelve-month draft proved a much more effective artistic process for me than an open-ended one. Not coincidentally, the book opens on New Year's Eve and ends a year later.
Q. What have you been reading?
Around the time I turned forty, in reading Where Shall Wisdom Be Found, Harold Bloom's tribute to reading literature for wisdom, I was struck by how little time I had left to read seriously. I figured I was lucky if I could read one book deeply per month. If I lived to 80, that was 480 more books. With that shocking consideration as a backdrop, three friends and I formed a group to read extraordinary works of literature.
The acid test for books of inclusion has been that they have been proven by history to merit multiple readings in a lifetime. We started with Remembrance of Things Past and then read works of Twain, Whitman, Dickinson, and Thoreau as a precursor to reading works of Faulkner. Then we did Cervantes and Borges before reading García Marquez. Last year we read through Nabokov's American period and we have now moved on to Tolstoy.