August 2004

Jennifer Leblanc

fiction

Bandbox by Thomas Mallon

Usually, when an author stuffs a novel with too many characters and subplots, it only leaves the reader confused and muddles any chance for a satisfying end. Thomas Mallon has avoided these pitfalls with his new novel, Bandbox. Every character is so quirky and genuine, every situation unique and hilarious that at the end of the tale, any reader will only want more.

Bandbox is a men’s magazine, the GQ of the jazz age, competing with Cutaway, a recent startup run by one of Bandbox’s editorial offspring. The faithful lot that editor-in-chief Joe Harris is left with includes a stuttering copywriter driven more by his animal rights convictions than his job, a former countess in the research department, a loud, flamboyant photographer, and an assortment of single-gal secretaries and playboy alcoholic writers. When an under appreciated fact-checker turns into a Cutaway mole, Bandbox is hit with a few devastating setbacks. After annual short-story winner turns out to be a plagiarist, the mole takes credit for having planted and exposed the author in the first place, bringing more disenchanted readers over to Cutaway.

As the circulation and financial figures constantly plague Harris, his only hope is to get 23-year-old screen siren Rosemary LaRoche on the cover. But the wild actress proves to be more a problem than a solution to Bandbox’s woes as she drives a journalist back to drinking and keeps the deal in limbo. On top of all of this, John Shephard, a naïve college student with Bandbox-inspired dreams, arrives in New York on Harris’s doorstep, and then promptly disappears during a party at the publisher’s penthouse. His hysterical mother back in Indiana has only Bandbox to turn to, setting off an amateur investigation by the staff to find their “#1 fan” and put his innocent, rescued face on the cover as a triumph.

The Shephard situation, centered on a youthful idealist with big-city dreams, provides the perfect way for Thomas Mallon to summarize his characters big-city reality: “No one at the table had interrupted John’s excited narrative to ask why he had come to the city or what circumstances had preceded his departure from Indiana. It was, to these diners, a simple given that everywhere else was a place you left, that each person arrived in Manhattan like an appliance ready to be taken out of its box and plugged in. This nice boy was just one more shiny creature off destiny’s assembly line.” But no matter how bitter or wide-eyed someone may be, behind the snappy, cynical dialogue, in the private moments and thoughts are the universal struggles with loneliness and love.

Along the way, there are plenty of references to other real-life magazines of the time, such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair and Cosmopolitan. In his own subtle, effective way, Mallon is really the story of the new media of the 20’s filled with glossy photographs and movie stars, the predecessor of our own media-mad culture. He makes his characters aware of their part in such a fresh new society, even as they go about their daily lives: “And wasn’t that what she and her colleagues were doing each day? Whipping up the silly faddish here-and-now of life itself so that someone could pronounce it, eons later, the spirit of its vanished age?”

Just when it seems that a happy ending is impossible, Mallon pulls off a perfect finale with a resonating last line: “What do we do for an encore.” At the same time as cheering for their individual and collective victories, the last line is also bittersweet, as we know that the crash of 29 is right around the corner and, like the novel for the reader, the party is over for these characters. At least we get to vicariously enjoy it while it lasts with them.

Bandbox by Thomas Mallon
Pantheon Books
ISBN: 0375421165
320 Pages