Friday, May 25, 2012

Rules of Civility

I love the phenomenon--coincidence or serendipity--of reading something then running into the same ideas or images in an unexpected place.  On my recent trip to Washington, D.C., I had begun reading Amor Towles' first novel Rules of Civility, highly recommended by my friend Sandra, who said she didn't want it to end. 

While touring the museums of the capital, I discovered that the National Gallery's current exhibit including--you guessed it--Walker Evans' Subway Portraits.

The novel, told as a flashback, begins with the protagonist Katey Kontent and her husband Val at a museum showing of Walker Evans' subway portraits, a series of photographs taken secretly by the famous
photographer.  One of the subjects--appearing in two separate photographs--she recognizes as Tinker Grey, sending her back to 1938, when the bulk of the story is set.  A mid-twenties career woman, living in a boardinghouse in New York City, Kontent (accent on the second syllable) and her friend Eve meet Tinker Grey, a young, single, charming banker, on an evening out at a jazz club.  Although both girls are enamored, an automobile accident in which they are all involved seriously injures Even, leaving Tinker feeling responsible.

Katey moves comfortably among those socially and economically her betters, moving into a position of great potential with a new publication as well.  Over the course of the story, Towles reveals the thin but perceptible veil between the haves and have-nots, those born to wealth, those aspiring to it, and those who have experienced great loss. 

Towles not only develops a charming narrator, but even when showing the weak side of human beings, he obviously has a sympathy for the characters he creates. In telling the story, he also manages to pull together threads of the narrative in a surprising way, sending me back through the tale once I reach the ending, in which he returns to later years in which the book opened.

Walking through the exhibit in D.C., I found myself examining the subjects closely, hoping for a glimpse of Tinker Grey.


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