I’ll begin this review with a confession. Prior to reading Saint Mazie by Jamie Attenberg I re-read Joseph Mitchell’s profile of Mazie Phillips published in 1940 and which serves as the inspiration for the novel. I’ll admit I was intrigued and anxious to know could Jami Attenberg really create a credible story of Mazie Phillips the former Queen of the Bowery?
From a distance of 75 years Mazie is an historical figure, a shadow from a bygone New York. Would Jamie Attenberg be possibly able to put flesh on the rather meagre bones of the memory of Mazie Phillips? I’m delighted to say that she does and achieves it with understated aplomb.
While researching this novel Attenberg herself has said she came across very little information on Mazie Philipps other that what was contained in Joseph Mitchell’s original article. At the time she hadn’t even a photo of Mazie to draw any form of inspiration from. In fact she had to start from scratch and create an imaginary New York filled with Mazie her friends and acquaintances.
The novel is divided into three distinct parts, the first when Luis, her sister’s husband, rescues Mazie and her younger sister from the abusive environment and brings them to New York, the second when the family moves to Coney Island and the third when they return to the city proper when Mazie’s vocation brings her fame.
Mazie’s story is told by a number of people, the first and foremost being Mazie herself through her imagined diary entries, also through a variety of voices such as George Flicker her old lover and neighbour and Linda Wallach the great granddaughter of Rudy Wallach who managed the Venice Movie Theatre.
Readers shouldn’t get hung up on the on the epistolary style of the novel it only adds to the story and despite the quite breezy style had both intelligence and emotional depth. It is also, most importantly, highly enjoyable. Mazie’s character development is deftly handled and we witness her journey from being a young girl to a care worn but not embittered middle aged woman.
Mazie is feisty yet amorous, vein but charitable, she knows the value of a dollar though wouldn’t think twice about giving her last quarter to a homeless vagrant she’d pass on the street. In short she’s like any character we find fascinating, a mass of contradictions which only endear her to the reader.
A whole menagerie of characters inhabit this novel. For example we have Sister Tee the young nun who works in tandem with Mazie in relieving the plight of the underprivileged or the Captain, Mazie’s erstwhile lover who over the years breezes in and out of the story and for whom Mazie attains legendary status. Not to mention the various customers whom Mazie meets in her job as cashier of the Venice Movie Theatre and those homeless bums to whom she dispels both money and care.
There’s great humanity in this novel. Mazie can really empathise with those on the bottom rung of society and knows how to give someone a break. Of those on the street she declares that they’re real people who despite living on the street did have someone to love them once. She’s well aware of her faults and tells us that she drank her way through prohibition. Yet on another occasion she rather emotionally asks George Flicker, “Is it so hard to believe I could be a good person?” .
Any Cop?: An absolute pleasure to read this rather excellent well written novel.