Bandbox, By Thomas Mallon, Pantheon, 306 pp., $24.95
The bimbos, killers, and movie stars age more quickly than yesterday's gossip columns if you don't take them at face value. So do Bandbox, the fictional men's magazine at the center of Thomas Mallon's new novel of the same name, and the novel itself, a playful sendup of 1920s New York. The magazine and the novel both come with a wink -- the magazine's says we know what the modern man wants; the book's says to have a laugh at this period piece. Both know fun, fantasy, and frivolity. Both are attractive in the moment and a bit forgettable afterward.
The heart and soul of "Bandbox" is a man they call Joe Harris, a heavy-drinking editor in chief who has become the industry darling for turning around the disheveled publication in a few short months. Bandbox is on top in every way. Readers love it. The eccentric staff has wielded its cult of personality to achieve star status. Competitors are jealous. Harris's magazine gets so successful that some of his underlings, aiming for the same heights, abandon ship for a start-up (called Cutaway magazine, appropriately). No one would call New York a one-magazine town, but with Bandbox suddenly threatened by its defectors, it becomes clear that these two rags -- separated by a few floors in Midtown's Graybar building -- will fight to the death. The epic battle, which betrays no discernible rules of conduct, is the engine of Mallon's wild tale.
And by wildness we're talking not only about the random ocelot, koala, or lemur that finds a home in these pages, but also Harris and his minions -- some molded from fantasy; some from magazine legends. A good example is a chameleonic writer named Paul Montgomery, a 1920s cutout whose allegiances are as mutable as they come: "His politics were however you were voting; his drink was whatever you were having."
A few others: Max Stanwick, a crime writer extraordinaire whose shoulders Bandbox finally rests on; Gardiner Arinopoulos, a photographer partial to exotic animals; Daisy DiDonna, a countess-cum-researcher who does her most important work in bed; and some sensible do-gooders who manage to keep everything on track. Oh, but the people don't really matter much. Their high jinks need only convey a garish era.
It's an era Harris knows well. He knows how the 1920s wants to see itself. He knows everything is careening toward disaster. Mallon writes: "Death, he thought. . . . It was today's essential thrill, the way every drama now had to end. The music played so fast you couldn't follow it, but every listener wanted it to play faster still, until the phonograph exploded."
Mallon, the author of "Henry and Clara" and other historical novels, gets points for being clear about what "Bandbox" is, and what it isn't. The book demands your commitment from the outset: If you're not willing to take the ride, don't bother getting on. The clue comes in the epigraph, where we're given the Webster's definition of "bandbox"; one of the synonyms is "unsubstantial."
It may be unfair to criticize a light novel for its lightness. Indeed, Mallon, who spins this story marvelously, deserves credit for making it a story only, avoiding any overriding morals or meaningful conclusions. And yet some readers of "Bandbox" will feel as if they just closed a speakeasy: When the music ends and the drinks stop coming, what's left is just empty, lonely night.
What helps redeem "Bandbox" is that it works as more than a historical novel -- it's modern satire, too. Mallon imbues the book with his own experience in the magazine industry, so his careful reconstruction of the Roaring Twenties is instantly familiar in today's media climate: rival editors sniping at each other like children from Manhattan high-rises; flesh-obsessed publications outdueling each other for busty models; reviews of late consumer gadgets.
What's more, the fictional magazine features in the book seem no more or less inspired than the insipid teasers on the magazine rack today. Consider two examples: Maxim magazine's January feature, "Barbecutie," which dubs singer Michelle Branch "dressed to grill"; and a rival, FHM, which plans to award a lucky reader with a signed bra from tennis star Anna Kournikova. The contest is called "Win Kournikova's Skimpies."