2011 Catapult Notable List – #8
Thanks to his publisher, Viking, I was lucky enough to have dinner with Amor Towles in Los Angeles (along with 8 or 9 other bookseller-types) back in March of this year. A rather charming fellow, this was his first real interaction with “the public” as a published author. He had never autographed his book for anyone on the planet before that dinner and although I wasn’t the first (see photo), I was dangerously close – foiled by my…occasional friend, Julie. (Occasions when Julie is not my friend: when she gets to be the first-ever recipient of an author’s signature. I’m just sayin’ is all.) Needless to say, even without the dinner, Amor’s book alone was easily good enough to vault him onto the Catapult list for this year.
Rules is a novel about a year in the life – 1938 to be precise – of young Katey Kontent, 25-year-old New York City secretary, struggling with identity and her place in the world. At a New Year’s Eve party, Katey and her friend Eve meet Tinker Grey, a handsome, high-society-type gadabout straight out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald piece. Tinker’s friendship opens new doors for Katey and she floats through the upper echelons of NY society with ease, although always as more of a voyeur than an active participant. Without a trace of contrivance, Towles completely brings 1930’s NYC to life – the clothes, the restaurants, the bars, the dialogue, the smoking, drinking, dancing – everything, top to bottom. (It’s a little bit Mad Men for the 30’s.) To me, that’s what Rules is all about – it’s a view into a lost world of American life. Sure, 1938 proves to be a life changing year for little Katey Kontent, but Towles’ creation of the era is what has stuck with me as something special.
The “problem” with being around books and booksellers and other readers all day long is that opinions get spread around like swine flu, often leaching into your own head if you listen to them enough. I loved this book while I was reading it and loved it after I finished. But after talking with other readers, reading other books in the months after, my opinion shifted around towards general apathy, I suppose. Well, maybe not complete apathy – I still liked the book, but I thought I could see its flaws more clearly, or something like that. Now, after reflecting a bit for this list, I realize that the flaws – such as they are – don’t really matter. Nor are they so prevalent as to be problematic. A common complaint I’ve heard and read is that “nothing happens” to Katey over the course of the novel. To that I say, “Who cares?” This is a novel about a year in her life – plenty happens to her, but there’s just no over-arching trauma or personal revelation. I read it as a chance to escape into the 1930’s for awhile – Towles’ evocation of the era is astounding – and that’s how I would suggest you approach it yourself. Don’t look for the answers to all of life’s big questions, just enjoy it for what it is – #8 on our countdown.