Thomas Mallon has established himself as one of the United States’ premier historical novelists, using the fact and fiction of the national past to fashion intelligent, imaginative novels. Bandbox takes as its milieu the colorful cultural scene of New York City in the 1920’s. Calvin Coolidge is President, liquor is bottled, sold, and drunk on the sly, and the stock market crash remains safely in the near-distance.
The novel’s title comes from the name of the men’s magazine which figures at the novel’s center. The magazine’s editor, Jehosophat “Joe” Harris, has recently rescued the magazine from obscurity and made it the country’s premier magazine for the American man. This is one of the novel’s subtext: the ways in which American culture shapes images of masculinity and femininity. Bandbox has its rival, though, in a new upstart magazine—Cutaway—edited by a former Bandbox writer and which purports to represent the “new” American male. The competition between the two magazines comes replete with intrigue, subterfuge, and dirty tricks.
Into his novel, Mallon introduces a host of historical and non-historical characters. Dorothy Gish, Ty Cobb, Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney, Leopold and Loeb: all are mentioned. Perhaps the most significant historical figure to play a central role as an actual character in Bandbox, though, is the notorious gambler and gangster, Arnold Rothstein: the man who supposedly fixed the World Series and engendered the Black Sox scandal. Rothstein represents one aspect of the 1920’s with which Mallon’s characters struggle to come to grips; movies, crime, moral liberality, jazz—all are aspects of the New York cultural scene and all are part of the radical changing times.
To illustrate the chaos at the heart of things, Mallon brings to the city the young Midwestern would-be writer, John Shepard, who is taken in by the Bandbox staff and who unwittingly involves himself in Rothstein’s world. Shepard’s disappearance becomes a “story,” for which these magazines are on a constant lookout. A “good story” is gold. As this particular story becomes more complicated, so too does the rivalry between the two magazines.
In Bandbox, Mallon tells his story with flair and wit. The talk is snappy, and while the characters are many, Mallon does a good job of making each of those characters live and breathe, which is what he also achieves with the age of the 1920’s itself.