A highly original way of introducing the two main characters of Amor Towles' "Rules of Civility" comes in the preface, when a mature Katey and her husband attend a 1966 showing of the famous black and white photos taken by Walker Evans of subway riders in the 1930's, who were unaware of his hidden camera. Katey recognizes photos of Tinker Grey, a strikingly handsome young man who was once a great friend. In one photo he is at the top of his game, well dressed and perfectly groomed. Another shows him shabby, unshaven and apparently down on his luck.
In 1938, Katey, Tinker and a beauty from the Midwest named Eve Ross became an inseparable trio, the girls having met Tinker in a jazz nightspot when he draped his elegant cashmere coat on a chair at their table. Katey and Eve know social status when they see it. “Dibs,” says Eve, and the two concoct a scheme to return Tinker’s coat to him. They lead him on some wild adventures, at times with him blindfolded, through parts of “their” New York. Tinker is captivated. These girls are poised to reach the top rungs of the social strata. Katey narrates the story.
Like Gatsby, there is something unrevealed and mysterious about Tinker, but both girls are enthralled. A dreadful car accident nearly kills Eve, and Tinker, who drove the car, aids in her long recovery. Eventually he and Eve are romantically involved. A disappointed Katey shows her mettle by gradually rising to better positions from the typing pool full of girls new to the city where she and Eve have made their start.
The book title comes from rules of conduct set forth by a young George Washington, which Tinker’s family had given him as a boy: when in company, show some sign of respect to those present; if you cough, sneeze or yawn, do it not loudly but privately; don’t sleep while others are speaking, etc and on to 110 rules. Perhaps they helped influence the life choices that Tinker made, the decisions that revealed the man in the two photos of him the photo exhibit.
Amor Towles has a remarkable and witty way of describing Manhattan in excellent prose, and it resonates with any of us who have moved to a major city full of hope and ready to find work and romance. Katey’s progression through job opportunities into a career position as a noted publisher’s assistant, along with a series of romances, are fascinating.
Almost none of the characters in this novel present themselves as they really are. Finding this out and growing from it is the challenge for the ones we care about. On the web it says that movie rights to the story are acquired, and I hope it will hit the big screen, partly because such great characters should not vanish when the book ends.