Though set in the past, Thomas Mallon's novels are not, strictly speaking, historical novels. Instead, he uses significant moments in American history as backdrops against which he explores the lives of ordinary characters. His best-known book is Henry and Clara, which told the ill-fated love story of the couple who sat beside Lincoln in the box at Ford's Theater the night he was assassinated. Dewey Defeats Truman, taking its title from the infamous headline gaffe, showed the denizens of presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey's hometown sorting through their own destinies in the shadow of the national election. The publisher's advance word on his new novel, Bandbox, claims that Mallon a respected book critic who has worked at several top magazines has transposed his own modern experiences in the magazine world to an earlier age of excess. This may well be true, but his delightful novel, set in New York City during the waning euphoria of the 1920s, does not have a contemporary feel. Indeed, with its signature cameos by such Jazz Age luminaries as Calvin Coolidge and Dorothy Gish and its precise evocation of popular culture, Bandbox handily captures the spirit of a bygone era.
When characters sport names such as Jehoshaphat "Joe" Harris and Cuddles Houlihan, you know that comedy is in the offing, and Mallon does not disappoint. Bandbox is part P.G. Wodehouse and part The Front Page or more precisely part His Girl Friday, Howard Hawk's fast-talking, gender-crossing film version of the classic Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur newspaper comedy. Mallon creates a frenzy from the very first sentence, when Cuddles, nee Aloysius, gets clipped in the ear by a vodka bottle that has been sent inadvertently through the pneumatic-tube message system at the editorial offices of Bandbox magazine. Bandbox is a men's magazine along the lines of Esquire or GQ, and its fortunes have recently taken a drastic downward turn thanks to an upstart competitor, Cutaway, financed by the legendary Conde Nast (another true-life luminary who makes a cameo) and run by brilliant rising-star editor Jimmy Gordon. That Gordon was once a protege of Bandbox editor Joe Harris makes his ascendancy even harder to bear. The two are engaged in an all-out circulation war, and when Gordon goes too far by threatening to make public a photo of the notorious child-killers Leopold and Loeb reading Bandbox in their Joliet prison cell, the generally ethical Harris has no choice but to fight dirty.
His weapon is an exclusive cover story about magnetic film star Rosemary LaRoche, but that plan soon goes awry when this demanding siren with a mysterious past becomes obsessed with Bandbox's top writer, Stuart Newman, who responds to her advances by retreating into a non-productive alcoholic haze. There are numerous other feverish storylines including one involving a bashful vegetarian/animal activist cum junior copy editor who rescues a koala bear from a photo shoot, and another about a countess-by-marriage fact checker with her sights set on an eminent judge all of which Mallon weaves together in the best Wodehouse manner. All the action is beautifully orchestrated, crescendoing to a triumphant finale that would have made old Jeeves himself proud.
Mallon colors the story with exacting details about life in the 1920s, with everything from advertising slogans and trendy products to what is playing at the neighborhood Bijou. Yet despite the formidable research that clearly went into it, the novel never strays from being a light and breezy entertainment, a tribute to Mallon's considerable storytelling skills. With its inebriating sparkle and unabashed optimism, Bandbox is a welcome tonic for our everyday woes, and the perfect book with which to start the new year.
Robert Weibezahl's new book, A Second Helping of Murder: More Diabolically Delicious Recipes from Contemporary Mystery Writers has just been published by Poisoned Pen Press.