Thursday, February 28, 2013

Rules of Civility

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.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Vast AM and FM Wasteland

In this area, there used to be two FM stations that broadcast classical music:  the local “W-BACH," which serenaded me to sleep each night, and the NPR station, whose outlets were scattered around the State and which intermixed classical music with jazz and news and word games.  Now classical music is gone, gone, gone. You can find country music and Latino music and hard and soft rock.  You can find, on the AM and FM dials, political talk and sports talk and call-in talk, which is whatever idiotic subject Joe Sixpack wants to vent about. But you cannot find Beethoven or Mahler or Mozart. For that matter, you cannot even find Jerome Kern or Richard Rodgers or George Gershwin.

It is just as bad on the road, for the high-fidelity radio in my car carries nothing but low-fidelity content.   So I depend on CDs for good music.  At night, an iHome and an iPod stocked with show tunes and classical music soothes me to sleep.  So all is well, except for one thing:  If the roughly 40 commercial radio stations within range deliver nothing but inane chatter and rock, who needs them? Fewer and fewer of us, I’ll bet, as more and more of us listen to CDs and iPods.  The radio is useful for news and weather and sports, but you need only two or three stations for that, not 40.  As for music, it’s all the same, a waste of precious bandwidth.

Right now, as I am typing this, I am listening to Jean-Yves Thibaudet playing Gershwin’s Concerto in F with the New York Philharmonic.  The concert was broadcast New Year’s Eve, and I recorded it on DVD.  It’s gorgeous music, and there are no commercials. If W-BACH were still in business, I’d probably have it playing. But it’s gone. The same fate awaits most of the stations on the AM and FM bands.