Comprised of recollections, diary entries, and excerpts, Jami Attenberg’s new novel, Saint Mazie, pays homage to “the Queen of the Bowery” with a host of striking voices, pluck, and wit. Inspired by a 1940 New Yorker profile of the real-life Mazie Phillips, a ticket-taker at the family-owned Venice Theater, Attenberg’s novel reimagines her life in tandem with that of the city she loved.
The Lower East Side’s Venice Theater is the bustling epicenter of Mazie’s world. The Great War’s end, the bitter ache of Prohibition, and the devastation of the Depression are observed through her “just green” eyes. From behind the glass of her ticket booth, which she affectionately calls her “cage,” she becomes the sort of woman who empties her purse in order to buy chocolates and milk for a wayward mother, and who freely shares her flask and cigarettes with men who call the streets home.
Saint Mazie seduces its reader with ease, making the most of fact and fiction while playfully pushing the boundaries of form. Opening with a supposed diary entry from 1939, the novel marches seamlessly through time, ducking in and out of chronological order, tirelessly anchored to Mazie, her ticket-taker’s “cage,” and her compassion for those who are down on their luck. Each entry recounts with a delectable rawness her adventures, heartbreaks, and hopes, which are subsequently echoed by a string of narrators who are transformed by knowing her and the legacy of her good deeds.
Benevolent in a stubborn and irresistible way, Mazie’s sainthood has rough edges. Her sanctity is shaped by flaws and failures, cultivated by the sort of tribulations that can make or break a person, and by the sort of trials that can do both at once. Throughout the novel, her highs and lows are illuminated, exemplified as undeniable truth; they make pilgrims out of readers who at the end can testify, “I knew the quality of her character […] I could spend the rest of my life with her.”
The novel effortlessly alternates between self-reflection and portraiture, cataloging the memories of those who knew her closely or wish that they did. Each narration celebrates Mazie’s unapologetic, at times bawdy, approach toward life, juxtaposing her appetite for pleasure with her capacity to feel loss and pain. Much like her beloved New York, she is a complex paradox made of guts and grit: part good-time girl, part bleeding heart, part hopeless romantic, part drunk. Mazie is a patron saint for cynics “who live by their own rules,” a paragon for people who find strength in stories that are as real as “flesh and blood.”
Saint Mazie is more than a novel; it lives and breathes, reminding us of the ways in which so much of who and what we are is fragmented and wrapped in the memory of the places and the people we love. From start to finish, these stories haunt you. Saint Mazie is a tour de force, a story as remarkable as its heroine’s heart.