Thomas Mallon's new novel begins with an epigrammatic definition of its title: Referring neither to music nor to boxing, a bandbox is, he quotes Webster's, "a neat box of pasteboard or thin wood, usually cylindrical, for holding light articles of attire." It's just the sort of ephemeral arcane that Mallon, as one of our most imaginative and inventive historical novelists, specializes in. With books like HENRY AND CLARA and DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN, set respectively in the 1940s and the 1860s, he not only immerses the reader in a precisely rendered version of a long-vanished era --- of which details like the term "bandbox" are the essential building blocks --- he also tells these complex stories with a dramatic flourish seemingly defined by that particular time and place.
With BANDBOX, Mallon tackles the 1920s, and the book's vertiginous velocity, keystone-kop commotions and clever contrivances certainly capture the roar of that decade. The title refers to a men's fashion magazine headed by Jehoshaphat "Joe" Harris, an aging editor who once famously turned the formerly failing rag around in one business quarter. Now he faces crazed competition from his former protégé, Jimmy Gordon, who has jumped ship to Cutaway, a prestigious Condé Nast upstart.
A boisterous brouhaha brews around this bitter brawl between big cheeses as Mallon deploys the entire Bandbox masthead --- from the managing editor all the way down to the lowly fact-checker --- to shadow stories in New York and California, to rake muck on rivals and to try to stay one, no, two steps ahead of the competition.
In Harris's inner circle are Norman Spilkes, the rag's skittish managing editor, and David Fine, the sadsack wine-and-dine columnist with the unlimited expense account. Stuart Newman, the cake eater who writes the bachelor life column and beds all the new girls, is fighting alcohol and his curious attraction to Nan O'Grady, the bug-eyed Betty copy editor. Her assistant, Allen Case, is a real case: he's an ardent animal lover who won't eat meat and resents Gardiner Arinopoulos's use of pythons and koalas in photo shoots with head model Waldo Lindstrom, "an omnisexual cocaine addict" with a hushed-up criminal record.
At least Nan doesn't work in the fact-checking department with Chip Brzezinski, a real Palooka who's hoping to secure a place on the Cutaway masthead by spying for Jimmy Gordon. But he's loyal to his boss, the Countess Daisy DiDonna, a social butterfly who's looking to settle down with the right man --- "right" meaning one who has money, prestige and power.
Covering the lowly vaudeville circuit is Aloysius "Cuddles" Houlihan, a veritable cautionary tale against burnout. He used to be a real up-and-comer, but he's all washed up these days. The only thing he can muster now is a pathetically moony look at his secretary, a choice piece of calico named Becky Walter, who craves the frenzied life of real writers but is held back by a wet-blanket boyfriend studying Scottish Chaucerians.
It's a considerably colossal cast of characters, but as they scheme and scam to save their jobs, Mallon juggles them all with vaudevillian aplomb. They play off each other dynamically, moving the plot half by their own wayward motivations and half by sheer happenstance: miscues, misunderstandings, miscalculations, miscommunications, misleads and misdeeds.
In fact, BANDBOX is often so much fun to read that it feels frothy and frivolous. This tone, however, is more a nod to the hubbub of Prohibition-era New York; this tonic has a strong bite. Mallon slyly suggests that the titular magazine is a fictional precursor to present-day lad mags like Maxim, Stuff and FHM that explode with scantily clad starlets and salacious sex columns. This implication is revealing: our cravings for love and sex, glamour and adoration, power and prestige, drugs and alcohol --- among so many other vices --- are nothing new, but rather conditions of simply being human. In this and many other ways, Mallon fashions the past to comment subtly but meaningfully on the present and, as with his previous novels, he does so with style and flair to spare.
Reviewed by Stephen M. Deusner on January 6, 2004