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Saint Mazie


Saint Mazie

In November 1907, 10-year-old Mazie Phillips receives a leather-bound journal as a birthday present. So begins her “New York diary,” where, in fits and starts over the next 30 years, she chronicles her evolution from a lively child to free-spirited young woman to the patron saint of New York’s downtrodden and drunks.

Mazie ---  the always sassy, sometimes sad heroine of SAINT MAZIE, Jami Attenberg’s delightful fifth novel --- is real, though her diary is a unique piece of historical fiction. The few who are already familiar with the “Queen of the Bowery” probably know her through New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell’s 1940 profile, which was later anthologized in UP IN THE OLD HOTEL. By the time Mitchell met Mazie, she was a brassy, faded beauty famous for her unceasing devotion to the bums she helped out with nickels, dimes and the occasional nip of whiskey. Attenberg imagines how she got that way.

"Mazie ---  the always sassy, sometimes sad heroine of SAINT MAZIE, Jami Attenberg’s delightful fifth novel --- is real, though her diary is a unique piece of historical fiction."

Mazie’s story isn’t exactly pretty --- there’s death, miscarriages, drug addiction, madness and broken hearts, among other calamities --- but it’s a fascinating one. At 10, she and her baby sister, Jeanie, are living in a rough-and-tumble New York neighborhood with their elder sister, Rosie, and Rosie’s husband, Louis. Their parents in Boston are out of the picture (Dad’s a “rat”; mom’s a “simp”), and Rosie has rescued her younger siblings from a life of almost-certain misery. Rosie’s protective instincts can be smothering, though, especially for a girl who embraces life with gusto. “Rosie doesn’t understand what it’s like to love the streets,” laments the adolescent Mazie, who’s just beginning to explore the city’s teeming nightlife. “I’m old enough for anything,” she declares. “They don’t know but I know.” 

Though Mazie is itching for adventure, life has other ideas. When Rosie has to stop working, Mazie steps in as ticket taker at The Venice, a Bowery movie palace owned by Louis, even though she dreads being confined to the tiny booth. “All day, hours and hours, the whole world going on around me. I’m going to miss everything. The world will pass me by. I will grow old and die in that cage,” she frets. 

Mazie’s worst fears come true, in that she does spend the rest of her life working at The Venice. But while her world may be geographically small, that doesn’t mean that it’s not rich, especially given the pageantry of life that unfolds every day on the street in front of her. Over the years, she becomes a neighborhood fixture, and then a legend. And her rough exterior turns out to be a mask to hide her big heart. This is a woman who can’t help but give up almost all she has to those in need.

Mazie’s devotion to those she cares about is fierce and unyielding, even as romantic happiness eludes her. That disconnect between her longing for love and her failure to find it gives the book a melancholy tone. Early on, she falls for the Captain, a lovable cad who sends her postcards as he travels around the world. She saves all his messages, even though she knows they’ll never end up together. “I’d love him if I could. But he’s got a whole life out there, flying free wherever he likes… And I ain’t part of it.”

The real (albeit platonic) love of Mazie’s life turns out to be her friend, Sister Tee, a nun who ministers to the neighborhood poor. It’s after Sister Tee dies, at the dawn of the Great Depression, that Mazie finds her true calling. She fights off looming despair by helping the men who have hit rock bottom --- the bums no one else wants to see, but with whom she feels a kinship: “They were nobody to nearly everybody, but they were somebody to me. I knew all their names.”  

Mazie is an indifferent diarist, sometimes going years without writing a word. Attenberg fills in the gaps by presenting the novel as a project by a contemporary documentarian named Nadine, who got her hands on Mazie’s journal from an old boyfriend. She pieces together the story through interviews with Mazie’s few surviving acquaintances or their descendants. This literary gambit is the least effective aspect of the book. Some interviews are informative, like those with Mazie’s childhood friend and later lover, George Flicker. Others, like a digression into the history of Coney Island, are intrusive. No one’s voice is as strong or compelling as Mazie’s.

But in Attenberg’s capable hands, Mazie is enough, a constant reminder of the value of appreciating what you have, even when it doesn’t seem like a lot: “I never realized I was one of the lucky ones, having a family who loved like mine did. Maybe they held on too tightly, but they never let me fall into the gutter.”

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on June 5, 2015

Saint Mazie
by Jami Attenberg

  • Publication Date: June 14, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 1455599905
  • ISBN-13: 9781455599905