Saint Mazie is the fictional story of a young woman in New York City. Told through Mazie’s diary excerpts and interviews with those who knew her or knew of her, the story begins in 1907, when 10-year-old Mazie received the diary as a present, and runs until 1939, when the entries end. From the first pages, we learn that Mazie was a woman of some note in the Bowery, a queen to some, a saint to others, and yet she questioned whether or not she was really a good person at all. Through Mazie, we are introduced to her sisters, the Venice Theater, an unlikely friendship with a nun, a great love affair with “the captain,” and Mazie’s greatest love — the streets and people of New York itself.
I found the novel’s set up a bit misleading and confusing. It’s made clear from the outset that Mazie was an extraordinarily generous woman during the worst of the Great Depression, that her saintly reputation was made locally during that time. The whole novel seems to be leading up to this part of her life, and yet it takes nearly 3/4 of the novel to get us there, and then the details of the depression and her generosity are somewhat sketchy and mundane. Moreover, Attenberg gets us sidetracked with certain of her fictional interview subjects for no apparent reason. At one point, I wondered if the unknown and unseen interviewer (referred to as Nadine just once toward the end) was in fact Mazie’s child, but ultimately the interviewer and her relationships with her subjects seem superfluous to the novel. She might be sleeping with a couple of them but that’s thrown out there for no particular reason that I can tell. Is she supposed to be a modern counterpart to Mazie? It’s difficult to say because we have little to no information about her.
Nevertheless, the character Mazie and her unusual life make for riveting reading. Mazie is a young woman with definite ideas about her own life — she has no desire to marry and yearns to be independent. Mazie and younger sister Jeanie are brought to NYC in 1907 by her older married sister Rosie due to the abusive conditions they faced in their parents’ home. From the start, Mazie is a force to be reckoned with, and she is fear/respected by the other kids on the block. As she grows up, Mazie fills out and gets a lot of attention from men, but she is assertive and not one to be pushed around. She enjoys drinking and dancing, she enjoys the company of men, but her older sister and husband Louis find ways to rein her in, eventually requiring her to work in the “cage” as the ticket taker at Louis’ movie theater, The Venice. Part of Mazie resents this and feels stifled; Rosie is domineering and increasingly frustrated and depressed by her inability to conceive a chile. Younger sister Jeanie runs away to pursue her own dreams. But in her “cage,” Mazie comes to see a world that she falls in love with — the streets and people of New York. A nun, Sister Tee, works her way into friendship with Mazie, who is a soft touch for people in need. Sister Tee becomes Mazie’s one good friend and influences her later actions. A navy officer who drops by falls in love with her and buzzes in and out of her life. A neighbor, George Flicker, and his Uncle Al (the resident anarchist) also play an important role in Mazie’s life. George is one of the interview subjects who can shed light on Mazie’s childhood and adulthood. The city is a character itself in this novel, and Attenberg includes some interesting information about New York in the 1920s and 1930s, such as the 1920 bombing on Wall Street, the notorious “Lung Block” housing units, and images of poverty for women and children and for men after the crash.
In the end, we never know what happened to Mazie after about 1939 because the diary ends. The current owner of the diary, another interview subject, laments the loss of Mazie in this way, as will the reader. Perhaps that is Attenberg’s point — that life is full of such people like Mazie, known in their world to their people but then lost with their memories.