A De­pres­sion-era hero­ine comes to life

Los Angeles Times - - BOOK REVIEW - By Steph Cha Cha is the au­thor, most re­cently, of “Be­ware Be­ware.”

In ad­di­tion to hav­ing pub­lished four nov­els and a short-story col­lec­tion since 2006, Jami At­ten­berg once went vi­ral for bust­ing a bike thief in Brook­lyn, which makes her one of the most New York au­thors of the 21st cen­tury, as far as I’m con­cerned. It makes sense then that af­ter 2012’s best­selling Mid­west fam­ily saga “The Mid­dlesteins” she should re­turn to New York with her new book, “Saint Mazie,” an en­gag­ing work of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion based on the life of Mazie Phillips-Gor­don, a woman once known as “Queen of the Bowery.”

At­ten­berg first dis­cov­ered Mazie — who was the ticket taker and pro­pri­etress of the Venice, a movie theater in the heart of the Lower East Side — when a friend sug­gested she read a 1940 pro­file by the New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell. That piece in­spired her fic­tion­al­ized por­trait of a cel­e­brated neigh­bor­hood fix­ture who “was charis­matic and gen­er­ous, and led a very big life for some­one who barely left a twenty-block ra­dius.” Man­ning her ticket booth, walk­ing the streets, Mazie helped many peo­ple who were home­less, es­pe­cially dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion.

The novel rep­re­sents a re­con­struc­tion within a re­con­struc­tion, with At­ten­berg choos­ing a doc­u­men­tary for­mat for her ac­count. The bulk of it is de­voted to a di­ary, kept by Mazie and un­cov­ered decades af­ter the events it de­scribes, but there are also el­e­ments of what be­comes an in­vented oral his­tory: a cho­rus of talk­ing heads, in­clud­ing Mazie’s neigh­bor, the son of one of her love in­ter­ests and the great­grand­daugh­ter of the Venice’s manager, and a few brief ex­cerpts from Mazie’s un­pub­lished au­to­bi­og­ra­phy as well.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, this con­ceit stretches thin — as when Mazie’s sis­ter Jeanie writes con­ve­nient ex­tended en­tries in the di­ary, or dis­tract­ing, un­de­vel­oped ro­man­tic ten­sions arise be­tween At­ten­berg ’s fic­tional doc­u­men­tar­ian and a cou­ple of her in­ter­view sub­jects — but for the most part, it’s an ef­fec­tive ve­hi­cle for a lot of com­pelling, im­me­di­ate, first-per­son prose.

Mazie’s voice car­ries the novel; witty, pas­sion­ate, high-spir­ited and warm, she is the best pos­si­ble guide to her own life. The di­ary opens on her 10th birth­day, af­ter she and Jeanie leave their abu­sive, poverty-stricken child­hood home in Bos­ton for life in New York with their older sis­ter Rosie and her hus­band Lou. It fol­lows her through a wild, he­do­nis­tic youth (“The whole world’s my sweet­heart”), the ups and downs of her love life and her many tri­als with a lov­ing but f lawed fam­ily. We see her work hard and sac­ri­fice and em­pathize to the point of pain.

Most of all, we see her, both rest­less and con­stant, roam­ing and lov­ing the city’s streets. “Th­ese streets are dirty, but they’re home, and they’re beau­ti­ful to me,” she tells us. “If you can’t see the beauty in the dirt then I feel sorry for you.”

Over time, she eases into her role as Saint Mazie of the Lower East Side — a non­prac­tic­ing Jew, she finds her call­ing in a near-spir­i­tual ded­i­ca­tion to com­pas­sion, in­formed by her ex­pe­ri­ences as well as her close friend­ship with a young nun. “Some saints,” she ex­plains, “begin their lives im­per­fect and then turn into some­thing spe­cial. Sis­ter Tee says we are the sum of our im­per­fec­tions. We sin and then we learn from our sins.”

At one point, the owner of Mazie’s di­ary de­scribes the ex­pe­ri­ence of read­ing it from cover to cover. He says it was “chat­ter­ing at me, ask­ing to be read,” and that “[n]ear the end I started read­ing re­ally slowly be­cause I didn’t want it to be over, I just wanted it to go on and on. I wanted her to live for­ever.”

This is a bold move on At­ten­berg’s part — she at­tributes awe to her own char­ac­ter at the power of a fic­tional ar­ti­fact she has cre­ated and pro­duced. Luck­ily for ev­ery­one, such con­fi­dence is war­ranted.

At­ten­berg has writ­ten a win­ning novel and a lovely trib­ute to a New Yorker whose only claim to fame is her out­sized kind­ness. Her Mazie is richly imag­ined and three­d­i­men­sional, and in th­ese pages she lives for­ever.

Grand Cen­tral Pub­lish­ing

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