We first meet Katey at an art exhibit in 1966. It’s a show of photographs by Walker Evans from 1938 — portraits of New Yorkers riding the subway, a mix of that city’s rich, poor, well dressed, haggard, harried, hurried. Katey is there with her husband, Val. We know she has done well for herself because an aspiring novelist is also at the opening with his agent. When the agent sees Katey, his eyes light up, and he motions for her to come over. She nods politely and starts walking—and she and Val go right out the door.
That little scene tells us much of what we ultimately get to know about Katey—driven to inevitable success, living her life on her own terms, with no patience for anybody trying to take advantage of her.
At the exhibit, she notices photographs of an old friend, Tinker, and shows them to Val. In one photograph, Tinker is well dressed, looking like the affluent young banker she knew. In another he’s in threadbare clothes, even a bit dirty, but most important, happy. Katey tells Val she knew Tinker but the two don’t talk very much about it. Val can sense that there is more to the story, but he knows his wife, and doesn’t push. He thinks the scruffy photograph came first, but Katey clarifies that Tinker’s looks changed for the worse as the year went by.
The rest of the book goes back to 1938 and tells us that story. Towles evokes images of pre-war New York that feel like old black-and-white movies—the light, the sounds, the energy of that city. It’s an especially vivid portrait, as seen primarily through the eyes of Katey, 24 at the time; her friend, Evie; and of course Tinker. Nobody is who we think they are. They may not even be who they think they are.
Even though Katey is the narrator, this is Tinker’s story. As Katey’s trajectory points toward success, Tinker’s takes a turn away from glamour and toward a more honest, connected life. Judging by the photographs, a happier life.
The novel takes place almost entirely in 1938 with these young vibrant New Yorkers drinking remarkable amounts of alcohol and having witty Spencer-Tracy- Katharine-Hepburn-type conversations as they wander to speakeasies, bars, and fancy homes. We learn the least about Katey. As the narrator, she can tell us as much or as little as she wants. We get a sense of who she is professionally, but not a clear understanding of her personal background.
The novel is a delight to read, even though at times you might challenge some of its assumptions. The images and the characters, including New York itself, will stay with you long after you finish the book.
To add authenticity, Towles uses photos from Evans’ exhibit throughout the book.
The book takes its title from George Washington’s Rules of Civility, 110 pieces of advice the future president wrote when he was 14. Tinker uses them to try to fit into a society to which he feels he does not belong. The last rule may say the most about his life choices as the year progresses:
Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.
— Pat Prijatel