Novel seems an inadequate term to describe Jami Attenberg’s latest, “Saint Mazie,’’ which employs a wide and ever-alternating cast of storytelling forms — diary, unpublished autobiography, documentary interviews — to REIMAGINE THE life of Mazie Phillips, the brash, tender-hearted, hard-drinking proprietress of New York City’s historic Venice movie theater.
Phillips first had a turn in the limelight in 1940, when Joseph Mitchell profiled her for The New Yorker, a piece that inspired Attenberg and some of her most vivid descriptions, including Mazie’s voice — “deep as a man’s” from yelling under elevated trains — and the green celluloid shade she wears to keep the sun out of her eyes. Attenberg’s style, at turns lyrical and blunt, is a strong match for Mazie, who spends her days in a small brass cage, selling tickets, and her nights on the streets of the Bowery, cavorting with men or, during the Great DEPRESSION, handing out dimes and bars of soap to the “bums.”
This voice — pleasantly tinged with JAZZ AGE argot, refreshingly modern in its honesty, and always intimate — is Attenberg’s great achievement in “Saint Mazie.’’ While she departs here from the thoroughly modern landscape of “The Middlesteins’’ and her previous books, the author doesn’t overload on period detail or place clichéd psychological limitations on her characters. And thank goodness. Mazie’s voice infuses her diary with raw pathos and contradiction, and her diary entries — the first written on her 10th birthday in 1907, the last in 1939 — form the narrative backbone of the book, giving Attenberg a chance to develop a character likely to be one of this year’s most compelling protagonists. Mazie is bawdy and brave, fun-loving yet often miserable, vain yet willing to hold the filthy hand of a dying, destitute stranger. Torn between freedom and family, beautiful dresses and the streets, faithlessness and faith, her question is that of the book: What does it mean to be good?
Appropriately — Attenberg is skilled at building thematic resonance — other key characters in “Saint Mazie’’ struggle along similar lines. Mazie’s older sister Rosie, who rescued Mazie and their other sister, Jeanie, from their violent childhood home, teeters on the edge of crazy. Rosie’s husband, Louis, one of the book’s most lovable characters, takes Mazie and Jeanie in as family and makes his fortune from shady, likely criminal, activities. Sister Tee, a young, ruthlessly charitable nun with whom Mazie falls in (mostly platonic) love, winds up suffering intensely. In moments, everyone in this book seems to be saving others and at the same time failing to save herself.
One danger of basing a novel on a true person is the urge to cover everything. Attenberg shrewdly skips whole eras in Mazie’s life, focusing instead on periods and events charged with conflict. She divides the book into three geographical parts, following Mazie from Grand Street, where she discovers “what it’s like to love the streets” and starts up a long, tortuous love affair with a sea captain; to Surf Avenue in Coney Island, where the family moves after a devastating loss; and, finally, during the Depression, when Rosie has bought Mazie a walking stick so she can better care for — and sometimes knock sense into — her homeless minions, to Knickerbocker Village. Mazie is living here when her diary entries stop.
If Mazie’s plot sometimes verges on the picaresque, Attenberg aims for cohesion of a more structural nature by weaving in a second narrative layer containing the voices of various people familiar with Mazie. Here, to name a few, we meet George Flicker, a man who grew up as her neighbor on Grand Street; Lydia Wallach, the great-granddaughter of Rudy Wallach, who managed the Venice; and Pete Sorenson, a shop owner who found Mazie’s diary and has turned it over to a documentarian named Nadine. This Nadine, it turns out, is interviewing these characters, some of whom become, as they talk, among the book’s most incisive, entertaining characters. At times Attenberg uses her documentary subjects to ratchet up the book’s dramatic tension, as when they plant hints about something yet to be shared in Mazie’s diary. At others, their voices feel extraneous — they threaten to clutter Mazie’s story, diluting instead of illuminating it.
And then, there is a third narrative layer: At the beginning of each chapter, Attenberg includes a brief “excerpt” from Mazie’s “unpublished autobiography.” While these paragraphs sometimes come into intriguing conflict with what we can assume to be Mazie’s truer diary entries, mostly they add little to the book, and by the time we come to understand why she was writing an autobiography in the first place, the conceit falls flat. It’s possible that the structural complexity that served Attenberg well in “The Middlesteins’’ places too heavy a burden on Mazie’s story, sacrificing some emotional impact for concept. Still, “Saint Mazie’’ is a boisterous, deep, provocative book — which is more than Mazie would have said about some people.
By Jami Attenberg
Grand Central, 336 pp., $25
Anna Solomon is the author of two novels, “The Little Bride” and “The Mother Rock,” forthcoming in 2016. Connect with her on Twitter @SolomonAnna.