Jazzy debut novel tracks trio finding their way in ’30s NYC
In the dog days of the Depression, some girls knew how to have fun. Kate Kontent and Eve Ross, roommates in a New York boardinghouse, have mastered the knack of going out on virtually no money. Although they don’t rely on male generosity, when they meet an apparent swell on New Year’s Eve in 1937, they’re happy to take him around to their favorite jazz dives - and to let him buy rounds - and an odd threesome is formed.
Although the trio - completed by the suave Tinker Grey - doesn’t realize it yet, they are living in a pivotal time. As they sneak into Marx Brothers movies and nurse their cheap gin, the world is gearing up for both renewed prosperity and, ultimately, war. Both these factors will play into their lives, but in the end it is an unrelated accident that will reveal the fault lines in their natures - and their connection - as relationships shatter and realign in “The Rules of Civility,’’ a sharply stylish debut by Massachusetts native Amor Towles.
As this brilliantly realized book unfolds, each of the three hurtles toward a particular destiny. But the seeds are all there that first freezing night: Kate has achieved her nominal independence by virtue of ambition and hard work. Her Russian immigrant family couldn’t give her a leg up, but Kate - Katya no longer - has arrived in Manhattan, albeit in a clerical position. Eve is looking for something less well defined. Having come from money, she refuses handouts from her rich Midwestern father as she haunts jazz joints in frantic pursuit of a different kind of life. Tinker, meanwhile, appears to have it all. Smooth, and rather aimless, he is clearly from a wealthy background - “[y]ou could just picture his forebear at the helm of a schooner,’’ notes Kate - but that family’s history is a burden that neither of his new friends entirely understands.
Some of that confusion comes from the times. As young people in Bohemian New York, the three cling to a late jazz-era insouciance, having fun at any cost, and the author does a masterful job of depicting this life - from those smoky downtown joints to the kind of Long Island estates where Gatsby might have danced a decade earlier. Kate is the practical one, but she comes to rely on Tinker’s essential decency. Despite Eve’s flirtatious nature, she seems the odd man out at first, but after the accident that catapults them into adulthood, she becomes both central and more elusive than ever.
Told in Kate’s wry voice, this is a coming-of-age story in which all three characters suffer through a loss of innocence. Kate is a keen observer and while her language reflects the slang of her time - she actually says, “Great Caesar’s ghost’’ - it is also timeless, as when she labels a romantic rival “as sharp as a harpoon and twice as barbed.’’ Like this narration, the period details that the author - through Kate - notes are precise and evocative, from the grim secretarial pool to the fireworks over a mansion’s lawn. But they never detract from the characters. Their issues are the eternal ones of identity and self-worth, set in stark relief in a troubled world. Perhaps they are not that different from our contemporary world, an older Kate implies in the thin, unobtrusive framing story: We were all young once.
Clea Simon is the author of eight novels, most recently “Dogs Don’t Lie.’’ She can be reached at email@example.com.