The term “historical fiction” usually puts me in mind of a good snooze, but Thomas Mallon’s clever new novel, Bandbox (Pantheon), had me laughing from page one. In this, his sixth in the genre, Mallon, who’s also a literary critic (Stolen Words) and historian (Mrs. Paine’s Garage), takes us to the Jazz Age and a nasty battle between New York-based men’s magazines. Legendary editor Jehoshaphat “Joe” Harris has revived the moribund Bandbox, but after his own best editor and protege Jimmy Gordon jumps ship to start the rival Cutaway, a “head-to-head, hand-to-throat” competition ensues. Bandbox’s offices are populated with engaging characters, including the bombastic editor, a demoralized writer on the vaudeville beat, a rakish lifestyle columnist, an omnisexual, cokehead cover model, and the dedicated (and gossipy) secretaries, copy editors, and fact-checkers who hold the place together. (Despite prohibition, there’s also plenty of drinking going on.) Mallon doesn’t belabor the history, but subtle details, like a photo of Leopold and Loeb reading Bandbox in their Joliet prison cell, locate the story firmly in the 20s, and his characters conduct their office politics and romances in zippy, Front Page-like dialogue. By the conclusion the loose ends of the intricate plot–involving an imperious, nymphomaniac Hollywood star, gangsters, the NYPD vice squad, blackmails galore, and the disappearance of a young Bandbox subscriber and the magazine’s efforts to find him–have been tied up neater than a silk cravat. Mallon will read from Bandbox at 7:30 PM on Monday, January 26, at Barbara’s Bookstore, 1218 S. Halsted, 312-413-2665.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/William Bodenschatz.