Edward Dillon doesn’t exist. Longtime readers of the Vineyard Gazette may recall reading about Mr. Dillon’s antics in the West Chop column during the summer of 1977. The column, written by then 12-year-old Amor Towles, reported the comings and goings within the close-knit community. Yet unbeknownst to most readers, the man by the name of Edward Dillon, mentioned in columns throughout the summer, was fictional.
“The goal was to work toward the point where everybody wanted to know him,” Mr. Towles admitted in a recent interview. To pull off the ploy, he decided Edward Dillon would reside in a remote part of West Chop. Throughout the summer, the 12-year-old chronicler conceived of increasingly outlandish activities for his character. “He eventually throws a party at his house, which is very large, with a Robin Hood theme,” recalled Mr. Towels. “And there are archery tournaments and music and ultimately people are given gold doubloons as they leave the party.”
It is well worth forgiving Mr. Towles his reputed adolescent journalistic transgression. Now 47, and the author of a just published novel, he has put his well-honed imagination to work again. His novel, Rules of Civility, is filled with vibrant characters and delivers a full sensory flashback to New York city in 1938.
Mr. Towles’s literary ascent has its own, fairytale-like, narrative merits. After the poet David McCord visited his first grade class, he knew he wanted to be a writer. Call that chapter one. In chapter two, he gets hired by the Gazette as a boy-columnist. The next chapter in Mr. Towles’s personal story could be titled Message in a Bottle, in which Harrison Salisbury, the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and editor at The New York Times, happens upon a bottle with a note in it on a beach in Vineyard Haven and sends a personal letter to the West Chop boy who wrote the note. Mr. Towles’s story progresses: He loses out on the job of editor of his high school newspaper, only to get the position after the appointed editor abruptly steps down, presumably for engaging in scandalously sordid Page Six-worthy behavior. Then, as the newly assigned editor, Mr. Towles gets invited to New York to visit Mr. Salisbury, with whom he’s been corresponding since Mr. Salisbury found his note in a bottle, at the Times.
Skip ahead through the years at Yale and Stanford. Mr. Towles decides to forgo a writing career and go into finance. He gets married and has two children. He enjoys his work and finds success. In his downtime (four-plus hours a week) he writes a novel, which he sells to a major publisher.
This might all be a bit hard to stomach, but it gets easier once you read the book. And there are, no doubt, bumps in the road that he doesn’t mention during a sun-soaked Saturday morning interview. (For one, he wrote another novel, but didn’t pursue publication because he didn’t feel it was good enough.)
Chance, luck and a healthy intellect seemed to have graced Mr. Towles; in exchange for his good fortune, he gives us Rules of Civility. It seems like a fair trade.
The book takes place during 1938, the year Walker Evans (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) began surreptitiously taking pictures of unsuspecting New York city subway riders. Out of respect for the people he photographed, Evans didn’t publish this work until 1966. Mr. Towles uses a long-delayed exhibition of the photographs in the preface to the novel to frame his story and set the stage for an atmospheric and fast-paced read.
“I was thinking to myself, wouldn’t it be amazing to be at that opening and to recognize someone, and what if you recognized the same person twice, but they had undergone a transformation,” said Mr. Towles.
Throughout the book most of his characters do undergo dramatic transformations — physical, philosophical and economic. It is 1938 after all, a time the country as a whole was undergoing transformation.
On New Years eve, the last night of 1937, narrator Katey Kontent, a well-read, sagacious 25-year-old, and her beautiful Midwestern roommate, Eve Ross, head out to a nightclub, where they meet the elegant banker Tinker Grey. “How the WASPs loved to nickname their children after workaday trades: Tinker. Cooper. Smithy,” observes Katey.
This chance encounter mixed with youth, money, beauty, aspiration, luck and fate sets the stage for the often boozy turns of event that ultimately alter all of these characters’ lives. Mr. Towles’s writing has been compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald and understandably so, this is Gatsby territory he’s in.
Perhaps it should not be surprising that Mr. Towles takes what might be considered literary risks for a first time novelist — the book is written in the voice of a young woman and he has eschewed quotation marks for dashes. However, by waiting until his 40s, he says he gave himself the gift of time. “I don’t have the recklessness of youth which can be a terrific creative force,” he said.
Yet, as he points out, “The advantage of being in your 40s is that you’ve read a lot. You’ve studied different literary forms and you’ve been interested in different literary forms — fiction, nonfiction, different periods. So taking those kinds of risks, to some degree, is a little bit easier.”
Given his day job as a principal at a Manhattan investment firm, which he asked to remain unnamed, Mr. Towles set a strict writing schedule for himself. “I designed a book with 26 chapters. I outlined it fully in advance. I knew most of the principal characters,” he explained. He allotted himself two weeks for each chapter in order to complete the first draft of the book within one calendar year. As Rules of Civility begins in a new year, Mr. Towles began writing on January 1, 2006 and says he finished it pretty much on schedule. He attributes the pacing of the book to his writing schedule. “By doing that — you write for a week, you edit for a week, and then you move on — (the chapters) almost come out like little short stories,” he explained.
Mr. Towles grew up spending summers in his family’s West Chop home. Now he and his wife, Maggie, have their own house there. His children Stokley, 9, and Esme, 6, are fifth generation West Chop summer kids. Mr. Towles attributes the many cross-generational relationships in the small West Chop community with helping him to develop an interest in the lives of people who lived in earlier generations. “It had a deep-seated interest in me as a writer and a person,” he said.