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Review: Bandbox, by Thomas Mallon
Pantheon, 2004. $25

A vodka bottle comes through an interoffice mail chute by mistake and clunks a sozzled reporter on the head–and that’s just the beginning. A satirical farce that reads like a thriller, Bandbox is a hilarious valentine to the New York of 1927. The title refers to a flashy magazine fighting for its life against a hard-charging competitor, led by a one-time staffer nurtured at its hooch-filled bosom. Nothing’s too low for this ingrate defector, whether it’s bribing an office underling to rifle desk drawers, calling in the vice squad, or faking photographs.

That’s the premise, assuming it matters. Throw in a raft of eccentrics adept at stirring up whirlwinds, mobsters, a star-struck young man escaping college in Indiana, an unfortunate encounter with President Coolidge, and you’ve got as tart and heady a Manhattan as served in any speakeasy during Prohibition. Mallon spices the drink with lovingly researched details that made this transplanted New Yorker sigh with nostalgia: the interior of a subway car, the views from the newest skyscrapers (since become landmarks), the then-famous but now-obscure personalities who appear just within the story’s peripheral vision.

Mallon gratifyingly obliges the dictum that a satirist should push characters’ eccentricities to their limit. These include a shy magazine staffer who prefers animals over humans to the point that he believes John Scopes guilty “of at least presumption, since neither God nor nature would ever have allowed the evolution of charming monkeys into terrible men.” Then there’s a researcher, once married to an Italian count, who wouldn’t know an ordinary, everyday fact if it bit her, but can confirm–from experience–the shoe size of Arnold Rothstein, the gangster.

What really makes this cocktail fizz, however, is the prose. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so often over a novel. Consider this offering, about a “big-game-hunting literary sensation,”

a writer so virile and hairy-chested, he looked, when his shirt was open, like something he might have just shot. . . on the page, he boiled his sporting and amorous adventures so spare it sometimes seemed he was being paid by the word for what he left out.

It’s pretty clear who this is, but Mallon drops Hemingway’s name into the book later, as if to pretend otherwise. Wink, wink; nudge, nudge.

Bandbox is good fun and sharp satire, and I suspect that Mallon intended no more than that, which is to his credit. His publisher, however (as publishers do), tries to go further, using the adjective poignant on the jacket flap. I didn’t see any poignancy, and I’d be hard-pressed to call any of the characters three-dimensional. But they’re not supposed to be. They’re vehicles for a rollicking, crazy ride, and that’s just fine. Hop aboard.