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'Bandbox' captures essence of Jazz Age

| Sunday, April 18, 2004

Thomas Mallon has long been a time traveler with a keen ear.

In "Dewey Defeats Truman," he captured the sense of 1948 Michigan and that year's turbulent presidential campaign. In "Aurora 7," he had a pitch-perfect sense of that day in 1962 when Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter orbited Earth.

In "Bandbox," Mallon has spun off a sweet jazz riff about a men's magazine in the late 1920s, as the Jazz Age still burned brightly and just before the Wall Street crash made it all seem so irrelevant.

"Bandbox" follows events in the life of a magazine of the same name as it and its longtime editor, Joe Harris, deal with the various threats around them. A rival magazine, led by a former Harris protege, is nibbling at Bandbox's circulation. Staff members are either drinking too much, looking to jump ship or sleeping with their story subjects. And an avid reader, lured to New York from Indiana, disappears after a staff party and is presumed dead.

Mallon throws characters and plotting at the reader with both hands and in most cases succeeds in holding it all together. At times, the rush of people and events can be overwhelming, but around the novel's halfway point, things become clearer, and so does the reader's appreciation for Mallon's skill.

At a time when the overwhelming number of media outlets has shrunk the world, "Bandbox" recalls an era when New York and its denizens seemed exotic and distant.

"The magazine's January issue had arrived only today, and as John fingered the Addressographed subscription label, he felt connected to the whole glamorous production; he felt part of the scene just by knowing that in some print shop in New York City a machine had chattered out the characters of his name," Mallon writes of John Shepard of Greencastle, Ind.

While it's set in the 1920s and has a tightly woven plot of dozens of characters, "Bandbox" is just as much a meditation on the state of the modern American magazine. A longtime book critic for GQ, the men's fashion and lifestyle magazine, Mallon has patterned Harris after the late Art Cooper, the editor who revived GQ and ran it with aplomb for 20 years before being unceremoniously sacked by his boss, magazine and publishing mogul S.I. Newhouse.

Throughout the book, there are small tributes to Cooper, blurbs about his eccentricities and style that seem part of Harris' character to the casual reader but which have more significance to anyone familiar with the quirks of American magazine publishing.

Some of "Bandbox" seems like a lamentation for this bygone era, and it's easy to see why, as the men's magazine category has morphed from one with aspirations to sophistication to a collection of beer- and testosterone-soaked rags with plenty of big pictures of seminude actresses.

Perhaps, then, it's not surprising how some of the novel turns out. A novelist can always shape a fictional world to his liking, which Mallon has done here.

With its melancholy phrasing about the present, "Bandbox" is a playful romp through a bygone time by a writer in full command of his many skills.

Additional Information:

Author: Thomas Mallon

Publisher: Pantheon

Price: $24.95

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