Beginners’ Luck

Rules of Civility
Amor Towles
Viking, $26.95, 352 pp.

Ten Thousand Saints
Eleanor Henderson
Ecco, $26.99, 400 pp.


In 1947, E. B. White published an unusual travel essay in Holiday magazine about a city that was disappearing before his eyes: New York City. Specifically, his New York City, the New York City of the 1920s and ’30s that he’d lived in before removing himself to his “saltwater farm” on the coast of Maine. When he returned in ’47, he found much had changed, but not the city’s essential character. New York, he wrote, “can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck.” White concluded with a line that has been quoted ever since: “No one should come to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”

A recent tide of New York novels celebrates this maxim. In a way, the novels make for a tidy and fascinating fictional counter-history of the city’s last century, ranging from the giddy late-1930s New York in Amor Towles’s novel Rules of Civility, to the gritty 1980s in Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints, and on to the post-9/11 world of Amy Waldman’s The Submission (see Bethe Dufresne’s review in Commonweal, October 21, 2011) and into the future with Colson Whitehead’s—eek—zombie epic of lower Manhattan, Zone One (see Anthony Domestico’s review in Commonweal, February 10). Read them all, and you’ll have had a literary visit to New York every bit as dizzying and evocative as White’s (which itself has been republished in a slim volume, Here Is New York, Little Bookroom, $16.95, 58 pp.).

White’s words about restricting New York to those willing to be lucky resonate loudest in the Towles and Henderson books. Both are debut novels, both fascinating explorations of cities that have indeed disappeared. 

And good riddance, might say readers of Ten Thousand Saints: drugs, street crime, and rape abound in this book’s Manhattan. When privileged but intrepid Eliza, fifteen, heads to Alphabet City, she walks “purposefully, trying to blend,” haunted by this mnemonic: “Avenues A, B, C (A: you’re Asking for it, B: watch your Back, C: you’re Crazy)…D (you’re Dead).” Death is everywhere in Ten Thousand Saints: the first one is promised in the book’s third sentence and arrives not long after. AIDS looms, addicts stagger through the park. Through all this tromps the Straight Edge movement, an army of young men who swear off drinking, drugs, meat, and sex, while indulging in hard-core punk music and feral battery. 

It’s a volatile mix, but it perfectly suits Jude, a boy who comes to vie for Eliza’s affections. His adoptive mother makes bongs for a living; his father grows pot; his birth mother drank to excess, cursing Jude with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. But Jude, who spends the first pages of this book getting high on pot, Carlo Rossi, and turpentine, and who previously “imbibed NyQuil and Listerine; tripped on dairy farm mushrooms; huffed gas, glue, and [his] sister’s nail polish remover; [and] brewed beer in [a] bathtub,” falls under the spell of his deceased best friend’s half-brother Johnny, who is deeply embedded in the Straight Edge culture in Manhattan—and becomes very protective of Eliza.

For all the book’s noise (and noisomeness), its core values are intriguingly traditional, and so, too, is its plot: there are two boys, a girl, and much unrequited love. But then a pregnancy enters the story and the book becomes more traditional still, while simultaneously upending some old stereotypes. The adults press for an abortion—and not mildly: there’s an interstate chase and a private detective—while the teenagers insist on having the baby. I’m happy to report the kids succeed, and the book, too.

Amor Towles’s Rules of Civility succeeds as well, but his 1930s New York is no place for kids. (There’s a pregnancy in this book too, but it disappears in Paris.) Even though Towles’s cast is barely older than Henderson’s—narrator Katey Kontent, accent on the second syllable, please, is just twenty-five at the start—they are thoroughgoing adults. Their maturity is empowering but disabling, too: they need luck, but they’re too jaded to want it. 

Charm is the word this novel—and this New York—orbits around. This is a world full of wit and splendor, but it’s also a world bewitched. Look closely and you’ll realize how ephemeral that charm is. Katey and her roommate Eve don’t, not at first: they’re too besotted with the dashing young banker Tinker to see any signs of trouble. But just as the book itself seems to become besotted with this love triangle, trouble visits, the triangle unfolds, refolds, and transforms everything we (and Katey) thought we knew.

The novel’s flaws are New York’s flaws—too many people, too much going on, too fast a pace. But the book also possesses the city’s ability to make those flaws indispensible strengths: every character plays an integral role (even if one character’s reason for being rests largely on his ability to make paper airplanes), every turn and twist of the plot satisfies (even—or especially—the otherwise extraneous paper airplane barrage that one character launches across 83rd Street), and the book’s taxi-at-2 a.m. speed, by the end, seems essential. In this way, the author shows us just how much was changing, and how fast, in New York (and thus everywhere) as the 1930s came to a close. 

Katey winds up on Fifth Avenue at the end of her book, Jude on the Bowery, and E. B. White in Turtle Bay, looking at a “battered” old willow tree. It “symbolizes the city,” White writes, “life under difficulties, growth against odds, sap-rise in the midst of concrete, and the steady reaching for the sun.” This passage made the tree so famous that it became a kind of beat for the New York Times, something to check in on every so often for a quirky feature. Then in 2010, a reporter went looking and found the tree gone. But so is White, the punk clubs Jude frequented, the jazz clubs Katey ricocheted through. 

Trees don’t go quietly, though, and neither do reporters: the Times tracked down the arborist who’d taken down the tree. Turns out he’d taken a cutting and planted it behind his place in Brooklyn. “It’s going gangbusters,” he said, and of course it was. No one should plant a tree in—or write a book about—New York who isn’t willing to be lucky.

Published in the 2012-04-20 issue: 
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Liam Callanan is the author of the novels The Cloud Atlas and All Saints. His new short story collection, Listen, will soon be published by Four Way Books.

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