Reviewed by Victoria
Between 1943 and 1964, journalist for The New Yorker, Joseph Mitchell, regularly wrote pieces about people who lived on the margins of the city, eccentrics and originals and people who may just have been a little crazy in interesting ways. These articles were assembled in a single volume entitled Up In The Old Hotel, and one of them concerned ‘Saint Mazie’, an ordinary woman who behaved with extraordinary compassion during the years of the Great Depression. Inspired by this essay, Jami Attenberg has written a fictional version of her life, focusing mostly on the years that preceded the fall of the stock market in 1929, in an attempt to understand what made her the woman she was.
The way the novel is narrated made me think of another famous Depression-era writer, Studs Terkel, who collected oral histories from a wide socio-economic range and published them together. The backbone of Saint Mazie is in fact Mazie’s diary, but interpolated and surrounding its entries are interview pieces, given to a faceless researcher who is digging deep into her past. Whilst the interviews give a different perspective on Mazie’s life, they are character portraits in their own right, and their subjects are often dilatory, musing on their own role or drifting off topic onto their personal histories. Mazie’s diary is written with a directness that is indicative of our heroine, but it can in its way be tangential, too. The result of all these different testimonies is somewhat rough around the edges but honest, human, tender. Attenberg clearly wanted an authentic-sounding polyphony to pay tribute to a woman whom she saw as never less than authentic, if rough around the edges herself.
Mazie arrives in New York aged 10 with her younger sister, Jeanie. They have left their parents behind in Boston, an abusive father and a mother who isn’t coping, in order to live with older sister Rosie and her wheeler-dealer husband, Louis. Louis is a wonderful character, a shady character and a crook in all probability, but tender-hearted, generous, and determined to do right by his family. Rosie is a trickier proposition, desperate for the baby she can never carry to term, and prone to hysterical responses.
Mazie grows up wild, with an eye for the boys and a taste for the booze. She is the original good-time girl, who means no harm but can’t get enough of her own freedom. Rosie decides to put a crimp in her plans and so Louis gives her a job, selling tickets in The Venice, the well-known movie theatre that he owns in the heart of the Bowery district. Mazie does the best she can with her extrovert nature, a witness to all that goes on in the stretch of streets she can see, a friend to the faces who turn up regularly at her booth, and a strong arm when it comes to drunks and troublemakers. She’s terribly unlucky in love, in that the man she falls for – the Captain – turns up every now and then in such a way that she knows he has a family elsewhere.
Mazie is all too well aware of the trouble that goes on around her, and at one point she is drawn into helping a drug addict mother and her two young children, who live in a stinking, windowless shack. But it turns out that help is harder to give than Mazie suspects. The incident does, however, bring her into contact with the nun Sister Teresa, or Sister Tee as she’s known, and from this point on a deep, loving friendship grows between the two women, and Mazie is shown the model of limitless compassion – something she admires unreservedly unless Sister T makes the mistake of turning it on her.
Mazie is a fine character – feisty and strong, generous and sympathetic but tough in her way, sharp-tongued, a taker of neither prisoners nor nonsense. One of the interviewees, the man who finds Mazie’s diary, calls her:
This person who felt like she had been bad but didn’t want to give in to it entirely. She thought maybe she had a shot at being a better person but she couldn’t shake who she had been. We all live with our pasts. I live with mine. You live with with yours. I don’t even think she did anything wrong. She had just lived a big life, even though it was mostly in this confined space.
This is how Attenberg imagines Mazie – a woman with so much love to give and no obvious recipient, a woman who is forced to live in a confined space, and so expands into it every which way she can, expressing her largeness of heart and mind.
This is a poignant and moving novel that you can whip through in a couple of sessions. I feel like a dreadful grinch complaining that Attenberg is so full of love for her characters that she falls over herself at times to give them heroic speeches about how little they need, and how much community matters. It’s not like this is a message our selfish society doesn’t need to hear! But I wondered if the story would have had more impact if there had been more light and shadow. Even so, this is a gorgeous tribute to an exceptional woman, one who deserves the remembrance of history, and a necessary reminder of how much one person can do by simply responding to the call of their sympathetic heart.
Jami Attenberg, Saint Mazie (Serpent’s Tail: London, 2015). 978-1781254738, 336 pp., hardback.