(reviewed by Poornima Apte MAR 9, 2004)
Bandbox is novelist and book critic Thomas Mallon's most recent foray into historical fiction. Like his earlier novels, Mallon uses a history nugget around which to weave his story. And a delightful story it is!
Jehoshaphat Harris at sixty is the editor of Bandbox, a hip men's magazine he managed to turn around in just one business quarter. Not all is rosy in the offices though. Competition lurks around the corner in the form of rival magazine, Cutaway, now being edited by a one-time protégé of Harris's, Jimmy Gordon. The day-to-day pressures of putting out a magazine are only compounded by a string of troubles-the lead male model for the cover photo shoot is missing and is likely doing drugs; the vegetarian copy editor, Allen Case, is busy rescuing ill-treated animals from nasty shelters; a Hollywood actress, Rosemary LaRoche, the subject for a future magazine article is taken in with the writer Stuart Newman (who has himself taken back to drinking because of the sex-crazed LaRoche). This handful of troubles for Joe Harris is only worsened by potential defectors and moles in the ranks; it is increasingly looking as if Bandbox is on its way out.
Mallon who is extremely competent at capturing the precise details of a time and place shows this skill again with Bandbox. Readers are transported to a Manhattan that is lively and pulsating entirely reminiscent of the Jazz Age just before the Depression. Bandbox is full of lively banter and extremely sharp and timely repartee. It reminds one of a breezy Shakespearean comedy where big disasters occur as the result of the smallest of errors. Here the errors almost always lie in the language spoken-the mole Chip Brzezinski, for example, misconstrues the phrase "publicity stunt" when used by a Bandbox employee. A wide-eyed young naïf from Indiana, John Shepard, who is thrilled at the opportunity of attending a Bandbox party, ends up being kidnapped and stowed in the trunk of a car because his kidnappers mistake his overzealous spoken enthusiasm for quite something else. These small movements in plot are rip-roaringly funny because only the reader is privy to the larger picture and it is the reader who therefore cries out to the unfortunate perpetrator: "Come back, you didn't hear right." Mallon's dialog is indeed sparkling and very funny.
In sitcom fashion, contradictory scenes opposing each other's perceived truths, are also very well placed. For example, the young John Shepard at one point in the story imagines his idol, the columnist Stuart Newman, to be ensconced in a New York apartment leading the suave life: "He imagined Newman as he must be right now, asleep in some New York tower even taller than the one being built for the terminal here (Cleveland)," writes Mallon, "The columnist's silk robe would be draped over a leather armchair, while he lay under the blankets in patterned pajamas covering a torso newly toned by an hour of boxing at the New York Athletic Club, probably with some fellow writer or young company president." The very next scene shows the object of worship Stuart Newman "reaching through a hole in his union suit to scratch his stomach." Not quite the romantic vision Shepard was dreaming of.
The descriptions in Bandbox are also very well done: "She liked the whole ensemble that was the judge: the old-fashioned Hamburg; the three-quarter part in the thinning hair; the dandruff that needed a woman's cheerful brushing from the lapels."
About the only place that Bandbox occasionally stumbles is in the strength of its character development. While the lead characters are certainly very well done, the novel is populated with so many assorted people, that it often gets hard to distinguish one from the other or remember who is who. I am not sure I can still tell the difference between Nan O'Grady and Daisy DiDonna. Since the novel's plot moves along at such a chipper pace with such witty dialog, sometimes it is easy to loose track of the many characters who bob up to the surface as the book steamrolls along.
Bandbox is full of charming high-voltage fun. This one is perfect both to chase the winter blues away or for an intelligent read at the beach come summertime. When asked what the reader would like in Bandbox , I can wear John Shepard's worshipping gaze and gush just like he does, "Everything." Well, almost.
- Amazon readers rating: from 12 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Bandbox at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Arts & Sciences: A Seventies Seduction (1988)
- Aurora 7 (1991)
- Henry and Clara (1994)
- Dewey Defeats Truman (1997)
- Two Moons (2000)
- Bandbox (January 2004)
- Fellow Travelers (April 2007)
- Watergate (February 2012)
- A Book of One's Own: People and Their Diaries (1984)
- Rockets and Rodeos and Other American Spectacles: Essays (1993)
- Stolen Words: Forays Into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism (revised 2001)
- In Fact: Essays on Writers and Writing (2001)
- Mrs. Paine's Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy (2002)
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- WAG review of Two Moons and interview with Thomas Mallon
- The Atlantic Online interview with Thomas Mallon on Bandbox
- BookSlut review of Bandbox
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About the Author:
Thomas Mallon was born in 1951 and grew up in Steward Manor, New York. He attended Brown University as an undergraduate, and earned a Master of Arts and a Ph.D. from Harvard. His writing has been recognized by numerous awards. In 1994 he received the Ingram Merrill Award for outstanding work as a write. He also won a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1986. His essays and reviews have appeared in GQ, Harper's, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, The Yale Review Architectural Digest, The New York Times Book Review, and The Washington Post Book World.
After several years at Vassar College as an English professor, Mallon left to become a novelist. Mallon was Literary Editor for Gentlemen's Quarterly and wrote the "Doubting Thomas" column for a decade. Formerly a resident of Westport, Connecticut, and now lives in Washington, D.C.