From the author of Henry and Clara, a dazzling, hilarious novel that captures the heart and soul of New York in the Jazz Age.
Bandbox is a hugely successful magazine, a glamorous monthly cocktail of 1920s obsessions from the stock market to radio to gangland murder. Edited by the bombastic Jehoshaphat "Joe" Harris, the magazine has a masthead that includes, among many others, a grisly, alliterative crime writer; a shy but murderously determined copyboy; and a burned-out vaudeville correspondent who's lovesick for his loyal, dewy assistant.
As the novel opens, the defection of Harris's most ambitious prot�g� has plunged Bandbox into a death struggle with a new competitor on the newsstand. But there's more to come: a sabotaged fiction contest, the NYPD vice squad, a subscriber's kidnapping, and a film-actress cover subject who makes the heroines of Fosse's Chicago look like the girls next door. While Harris and his magazine careen from comic crisis to make-or-break calamity, the novel races from skyscraper to speakeasy, hops a luxury train to Hollywood, and crashes a buttoned-down dinner with Calvin Coolidge.
Thomas Mallon has given us a madcap and poi-gnant book that brilliantly portrays the gaudiest American decade of them all.
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August 07, 2012
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Excerpt from Bandbox by Thomas Mallon
Cuddles Houlihan got clipped by the vodka bottle as it exited the pneumatic tube.
The cry of pain that filled the office came not from Cuddles, whose head still lay asleep on his desk, but from the tube. Its ultimate source was the office of Joe Harris, the editor-in-chief. At this late, sozzled hour, Harris had mistakenly fed the interoffice mail chute not the translucent canister containing his angry communication to Cuddles, but the still-half-full, six-dollar quart of hooch he was regularly supplied with by the countess in the fact-checking department.
Harris glowered for several seconds at the undispatched canister, before giving in to the impulse to open it up and look once more at what had enraged him in the first place: a photograph of Leopold and Loeb, smiling, each with an arm around the other, perched on the edge of an upper bunk in the Joliet State Prison, both of them avidly regarding the latest issue of Bandbox. The thrill killers held it open with their free hands, like a box of candy they were sharing on a back-porch swing.
Would make a great ad, said the inked message on the back of the photograph, whose bold penmanship Harris recognized as belonging to Jimmy Gordon, up until eight months ago his best senior editor here at Bandbox. "I think of you as a bastard son," he'd once told Jimmy in a burst of bibulous sentiment. Now, as editor-in-chief of Cutaway, the younger man was his head-to-head, hand-to-throat, competition. If Harris didn't think of something, this picture of those two murderous fairies reading Bandbox--the magazine that had made goddamn Jimmy Gordon, and remade Jehoshaphat Harris--would be plastered to the side of every double-decker bus crawling up Fifth Avenue.
Rummaging his bottom drawer for another quart of vodka, Harris--a great curator of his own life story--managed to consider, yet again, with prideful amazement, how only five years had passed since Hiram Oldcastle, the publisher, had said, "You want it? It's yours," giving him the Bandbox job as if it were the keys to a jalopy. "An overpriced rag for overaged pansies," Oldcastle had called the dying men's fashion book, which had somehow never evolved out of the tintyped, stiff-collared days of McKinley. Harris would be the magazine's last chance before Oldcastle killed the sclerotic monthly and concentrated on his more robust publications, like Pinafore, for the "young miss"--edited by Harris's girlfriend, Betty Divine--and the shelter book, Manse.
"Give me six months," Harris had said.
"Take a year," Oldcastle had replied, sounding almost guilty about the eagerness with which the new editor wanted to take charge.
It took Harris one business quarter to bring Bandbox to life, to hit upon a formula that lured young men and advertisers back to a magazine no one had paid attention to for years. He kept the fashion--even made it fashionable--then butched up the rest of the production, adding a slew of stylish articles about all the sports, politics, crime, money, and movies that went into the current age's cocktail. Newsstand buyers and subscribers were now deciding they craved the camel-hair coat on page 46 just as much as they needed to sleep with the screen siren or buy the radio stock described a few pages away. The table of contents might sometimes seem a tasteless whipsaw--"New Hope for the Shell-Shocked" sitting right above "Look Terrific for Under Two Hundred"--but the magazine's turnaround had been so successful that by the spring of last year, Cond� Nast decided he could not leave a whole new field to his usually more downmarket competitor, Oldcastle. Last March he had announced the start-up of Cutaway, exactly the sort of clothes-and-journalism book Harris had concocted; and on April 30, he had named Jimmy Gordon its editor.
Jimmy Gordon: who had brought in most of Harris's expensive new writers; who had three bad story ideas for every good one, but so many of each that, with Harris as a filter, every issue of Bandbox still abounded with first-rate stuff. Jimmy Gordon, who was now stealing not only Harris's formula but every keister not nailed down to the swivel chairs here on the fourteenth floor of the Graybar Building. He'd pried away three of his old writers, a photographer, and two production assistants, and had even made a run at Mrs. Zimmerman, the receptionist. But the real prize for Jimmy was Harris's readers and advertisers, whom he would surely keep wooing away if he managed, with stunts like this Leopold and Loeb picture, to undo the makeover of Bandbox. Things could turn around so quickly--hadn't Harris himself proved it?--that the older editor would be left with a shrunken subscriber base consisting chiefly of the perfumed boys you saw gazing at each other across the tables of the Jewel cafeteria.
Hazel Snow buzzed Harris from the outer office.
"It's a bad time!" he shouted.
Hazel ignored him. "Mr. Lord and Miss O'Grady here to see you," she said, indifferent to anything but her desire to go home. Through the intercom Harris could hear the squeaky sound of Hazel putting on her galoshes.
"You picked the worst possible moment!" he shouted to Richard Lord and Nan O'Grady once Hazel had ushered them in.
The English art and fashion director looked at his expensive shoes, still unscuffed at this late hour, and whispered, "It's about Lindstrom, I'm afraid."
"What about him?" Harris asked, in a voice that made plain, for all its volume, that he would rather know nothing new concerning Waldo Lindstrom, the handsomest young man in New York, and Bandbox's most frequent cover model now that photographs were replacing illustrations. Harris would be more receptive to tidings of this Adonis were Lindstrom not also an omnisexual cocaine addict who had escaped from the Kansas State Penitentiary a few years ago at the age of twenty, and whose work for Oldcastle Publications depended on frequent payments from Harris to the NYPD's vice squad.