Mallon's 'Bandbox' -- banter, nostalgia, the 20s

December 21, 2003|By Michael Olesker | Michael Olesker,Sun Staff

Bandbox, by Thomas Mallon. Pantheon Books. 320 pages. $24.95.

In another lifetime, I worked at a newspaper where reporters fueled themselves between editions at a corner bar. There were editors who handed over their daily horse racing bets, tightly wrapped in copy paper, to a composing room employee named Mike the Cuban, who ran a profitable gambling operation on the side. A rewrite man named Byron Roberts once ran for mayor, just so his obituary might one day declare, "Byron Roberts, former candidate for mayor of Baltimore ..."

These individuals were known as "characters." In newsrooms that once resounded with the clatter of wire service machines and shrill cries of "Copy" but now tend to resemble suburban insurance offices, such idiosyncratic ink-stained wretches are recalled through mist and missing.

I sensed their ghosts skittering across every page of Thomas Mallon's Bandbox. But Mallon goes all the way back to that pre-TV time when publications "landed on the newsstand like the circus coming to town."

His new novel is a sort of hectic reverie of the Roaring Twenties, whose mad commotion was chronicled (and nudged along) by newspapers and magazines where editors separated fact from myth and printed the latter. If Bandbox were a movie, they'd call it Front Page or His Gal Friday. You can almost hear Cary Grant and Roz Russell bantering across its pages.

Bandbox, in fact, sometimes feels like one extended wisecrack. The title refers to a cocktail of a magazine populated by folks right out of Central Casting: the boozy editor who calls his pet cat Kitty Sark, the grisly crime writer, the reporter who never falls in love because "his real romance was with his expense account."

Mallon, a longtime contributor to national magazines and current literary editor and books columnist for GQ, means to tie yesterday's world to today's. He also means to be funny and affectionate. There are speakeasies and kidnappings and vodka stashed in desk drawers. There's a young lady "with the sweet suggestive breathiness that could de-ice a windshield." Calvin Coolidge shows up, and so does Arnold Rothstein, fixer of the 1919 World Series. What's not to like?

How about this? We think we've already met these people. Or, at least, their types. And Mallon throws so many of them at us, and so fast, that you sometimes feel he's afraid to slow down and tell us who they really are -- as though we'll miss a wisecrack if we pause too long.

When he does slow down, he's telling us about the minutiae of putting out the newest edition of his fictional magazine. In journalism, such details can seem fascinating at the time. In journalism, newsroom banter can seem enormously amusing at the time.

But, by the next morning, the details are forgotten and the banter seems a little strained. The stories feel a little stale, and the characters not quite as amusing when we have to live with them for very long. Sometimes, as the saying goes, even nostalgia isn't quite what it used to be.

Michael Olesker left The News American 25 years ago to write a metro column for The Sun. At the time, he described the transition as "like leaving employment in a friendly neighborhood bar to go to work for the Bar Association."

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