The novel is Amor Towle’s first, and it’s a most impressive debut. Written in the first person, it’s a story told, mostly in flashback, by Katie Kontent. As the novel opens, Katie and her husband are touring an exhibition of photographs taken on the New York subway in the 1930s. The subway riders wear faces of urban boredom, which is the point. Katie thinks one of the faces is familiar, then she sees him again in another photograph. Now she is sure: It is Tinker Grey. Her husband confirms it, Katie’s memory takes over, and the novel is launched.
This is a New York novel, with more than a hint of Scott Fitzgerald and the New York novels of Dawn Powell. Manhattan in the late 30s. Most of the characters are well insulated from the Depression, privileged people with pieds-a-terre in Manhattan and big homes on Long Island. Katie is a working girl, most definitely on the outer fringes of society, but she and her friend Eve parlay good looks and sharp wit to worm their way into the inner circle. Tinker Grey is at the center of this circle, along with various friends that inhabit the social stratosphere.
The author is a literary stylist, and a damned good one. A graduate of Yale and Stanford, he is a principal of a New York investment firm. For a male writer to channel a female memoirist is no small trick, but Towles pulls it off convincingly.
Katie is the kind of a girl that today’s television would build a sitcom around. She has pithy one-liners galore, and she attracts not only men but women, who collide with her a little too often, given the population of 1938 Manhattan. (“Katie? Katie Kontent? Is that you?”)
The title refers to a list of 110 rules of civilized behavior, as drafted by a young George Washington, and printed in an appendix. (No. 65: Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest. Scoff at none although they give Occasion.) The list of rules has relevance to the plot, but I should tell you no more.