Manhattan period melodrama, handled with roguish finesse.
The byzantine plot begins with a daringly extended exposition in which Mallon, author of other historically based fiction (Henry and Clara, 1994; Dewey Beats Truman, 1997, etc.), introduces nearly two dozen characters. Foremost is Jehoshaphat “Joe” Harris, world-weary editor-in-chief of the struggling men’s monthly magazine Bandbox (think Esquire), in a death struggle with rival publication Cutaway, edited by Harris’s semi-scrupulous former employee Jimmy Gordon. The time is the mid-1920s. Journalists and their molls talk tough, drink hard, and mingle with such varied celebs as (fictional) film seductress Rosemary La Roche and (historical) crime boss Arnold Rothstein. Harris’s bibulous vaudeville reporter “Cuddles” Houlihan pines for his lissome—and plucky—gal assistant Becky Walter. Suave columnist Stuart Newman disgraces Bandbox in a drunken meeting with president Calvin Coolidge. Smoldering photographer’s model Waldo Lyndstrom’s bisexual misadventures necessitate payoffs to police. Novelist-columnist Max Stanwick (a razor-sharp caricature of bon vivant Ben Hecht) moves in and out of criminous environments with Cagney-like aplomb. An animal-loving fact-checker sets out to rescue animals stashed in unsafe conditions for use by a phlegmatic staff photographer. A rigged fiction contest threatens to topple the magazine’s credibility. And when Bandbox subscriber dewy-eyed Indianan John Shepard arrives in NYC and meets his raffish journalistic gods, an indiscreet remark prompted by his overindulgence in “near-beer” gets the kid kidnapped by Rothstein’s goons and spirited away to a California ranch. Somehow Harris’s feisty mag survives this “swirl of plagiarism, narcotics-selling . . . public drunkenness” and other embarrassments. Lost are found, lovers united, and Jehoshaphat trumps the ineffably slimy Gordon and lives to fight another day.
Bandbox pulses with a comic energy and detail reminiscent of T.C. Boyle at his most entertainingly manic: it’s a wonderful ride, and a quantum leap beyond Mallon’s earlier fiction. Ragtime in double-time.