The Ice Storm, Rick Moody’s novel, was published in 1994, set in 1973. One of the things readers who loved the book but were not yet born (or were barely crawling) in 1973 remember is the lyrical/tragic description of the “key parties,” parties in which guests’ willingly threw their car keys in a bowl to fish them out randomly, like lottery tickets, and determine the fate of their sex life that night—or their seasonal lovers. We think Mad Men was wet, but perhaps the seventies were even wetter. Were the eighteen-seventies still wetter than that? Apparently people are giving parties in ironic homage to an age when the party itself was the decadent act.
Moody captured the tragic quality of that era, and of those people. He captured the soulless risk of teenagers left alone on prep school holidays in Park Avenue flats, and of parents gasping for air within communities of elegant excess. These are the towns of too much—but still not quite enough—privilege, with their lie of freedom and status. These are the things we remember now from those times, or at least from the novels of those times.
The era being celebrated at “Bolter” parties, according to today’s Times Styles Section, was not dissimilar. The English Happy Valley crew is one the English still carry a specific fascination for (wrapped up carefully within filigreed protestations of shame). The Bolter is a brilliant book written by English author Frances Osborne, and Osborne knows—like Rick Moody—the subtle signifiers of a time and a place and a “set” she describes.
The Times writes, of the parties happening now:
At first, the proceedings were decorous, as the hostess (clothed) welcomed a small throng to her rooftop terrace overlooking the Hudson. As jazz emanated from speakers and a bartender poured aperitifs, Bryan Christian, a book club habitué who works at Hyperion, arrived in a natty summer suit with patterned pocket square. He said, as if double-checking, “There’ll be no nudity.” But several hours into cocktails, Champagne, rosé and red wine (with chilled melon soup and boeuf à la ficelle as blotters), the rules of engagement blurred, and the merrymakers began to roar: “Keys in a bowl! Keys in a bowl!”
Remember the film version of The Nanny Diaries? Unlike Ang Lee’s nuanced, poetic film adaptation of The Ice Storm, that movie opened in Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History. The filmmakers tried (leadenly) to make a not uninteresting point: when considering our current culture, are we seeing things which will be as foreign to future historians as the Incas are to us? Whether or not you elect to accept the anthropological cliché, one must admit: history teaches us everything, and nothing. It is all in the point of view. That privilege often begs a sidecar of distress and Vicodin is a trope we all recognize, but we still need Rick Moodys and Frances Osbornes to remind us exactly why.