Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg, book review: A big-hearted story of old New York

Attenberg's novel reads like a very real portrait of the 1920s and 1930s

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The Independent Culture

In 1940 the New Yorker ran Joseph Mitchell's profile of Mazie Phillips-Gordon, proprietress of the Venice movie theatre in the Bowery district of Manhattan and friend to anyone – man, woman or child, regardless of their story – down on their luck on the Lower East Side.

To categorize Saint Mazie as a straightforward historical novel is to ignore Attenberg's narrative inventiveness. A work of fiction in its entirety – bar the bare minimum of historical facts about the real Mazie's life – it masquerades as an oral history made up of interviews with people who knew or were connected to Mazie; excerpts from Mazie's unpublished autobiography; and her own diary entries, written between 1907 and 1939. It's a period piece, for sure, but it reads like a very real portrait of the 1920s and 1930s, and Attenberg never allows the voices of her characters to be obscured by "authentic" detail. Background is background, but it serves the characters rather than vice versa. At its core, the central concern of the novel is an examination of what it means to be a good person.

If Mitchell's piece painted a portrait of an already anointed "Saint Mazie", presiding over her territory and subjects as "Queen of the Bowery", Attenberg writes the Bildungsroman that imagines Mazie's transformation from "good-time girl" to a woman famous for her good works – her nightly patrols of the streets, offering whatever else those she meets need. It's not a tale of religious conversion – though Catholic charity is explored through the figure of Sister Tee, a young nun with whom Mazie forms an unexpectedly close friendship – or an atonement narrative. Mazie is a real human being, but also capable of making mistakes. What makes her special is her near boundless benevolence for the unlucky souls around her, an empathy born from her ability to recognise how fine the line is between the desperate and the comfortable: "She wasn't much different than me," she thinks of a woman who can't afford to feed her children, "just a turn here, a twist there."

Attenberg's secondary characters are all equally complex and three-dimensional, living in a world of grey areas. This is an "imperfect" city, but there are two sides to every story and kindness appears in some unexpected guises, and beneath the surface there's little difference between the gangsters and the police. Encouraging compassion without ever descending into hackneyed sentiment, this is a novel with as big a heart as Mazie herself.