Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie and My Mother’s New York

Saint Mazie, by Jami Attenberg
Saint Mazie, by Jami Attenberg

There are many reasons I enjoyed Jami Attenberg’s newest novel, Saint Mazie, a gem I discovered thanks to Ben Percy’s Tweet of June 2:

Happy pub day to @jamiattenberg! Everybody head out and grab a copy of her new novel, Saint Mazie: http://www.powells.com/biblio/9781478903819 …

It’s a story about Mazie Phillips-Gordon, a real New Yorker who lived in the same neighborhoods (Manhattan’s lower east side) and in the same era (if you concentrate on the post-Depression years) as another (perhaps less famous but far more dear) New Yorker–my very own mother.

It’s also smartly written historical fiction. Attenberg gets us into the head and the life of Mazie by having her write a diary–a diary so convincing I had to look up whether or not the real Mazie Phillips-Gordon left an actual diary behind. She did not. What better tribute to the writer of an historically embedded, fictionally-enhanced character?

And so, while the New York Times and NPR rave about the book…

Mazie’s story unfolds with simplicity and grace. And like Pete Sorenson, the ordinary guy from Red Hook who finds her diary, readers will be powerfully affected. “Near the end,” says Pete, “I started reading really slowly because I didn’t want it to be over, I just wanted it to go on and on. I wanted her to live forever.” (NPR)

The book is full of great one-liners (Attenberg is amazing on Twitter), and reading it is nothing like reading “The Middlesteins,” Attenberg’s previous book. The Middlesteins are a family of self-deluding people treating one another horridly. Mazie knows herself. She does good without being a simp. She makes sainthood seem not only attainable, but seductive. (NYTimes)

…I loved it because I already knew the streets, the walk-up tenements and their bad air, the movie theaters, the ubiquitous alcohol use and abuse. Most of all, what hit home for me was the extended family without much (“They didn’t have a pot to pee in or the window to throw it out of”–that’s a quote from my mom) taking in and loving up cousins, aunts, uncles, siblings and–in the case of my mother and her brother–an orphaned niece and nephew.

Family–all long-dead, most having lived briefly and passionately and in many ways, tragically–came back to me when I read Saint Mazie. First were my mother’s parents, Irish immigrants of the 1920’s. Each had dreams fueled by industry and pride. My grandfather was a longshoreman who went to work each day in a suit which he changed out of on the waterfront and back into for his walk home. My grandmother had three children and was the “super” for two tenement buildings, a back-breaking job which included the maintenance of coal-fires and the scrubbing of marble stairs and brass bannisters. Unfortunately, like the dreams of many of Attenberg’s characters in Saint Mazie, my grandparents’ aspirations were foiled by ill health and despair. They died within six months of each other when my mother was twelve, her siblings nine and six. Mazie’s Louis reminds me of no one so much as my mother’s uncle who, along with his new wife, welcomed my mother (and one sibling whose placement with other relatives failed–imagine all the ramifications of that tragedy, that legacy) into their railroad flat apartment even when their own resources were scant. My mother’s aunt (my Nana) was barely 10 years older than my mother.

It’s possible my mother went to the movies at the Venice Theater; if not the Venice, then other neighborhood movie theaters where a matinee, my mother says, took her out of the sadness and loss of the real world long enough to imagine. As did weekly radio shows before that. These gifts of imagination may have gotten my mother out of the tenements and into the life she eventually lived, in suburban Long Island, but she and my father never forgot (my dad grew up in the Bronx) where they came from. No visitor–and there were many, from all over the country and the world–ever got my father’s famous “Nickel Tour” of his and my mother’s beloved New York City without a trip through the Bowery. My mother never learned to drive but when the aunt who raised her was sick and eventually dying of colon cancer my mother made her way, via buses and trains and subways, from our home in the ‘burbs back to the neighborhoods of New York, where she kept my Nana company for a few precious hours a week.

So there’s that.

Another reason I liked Saint Mazie is that my first, yet-to-be-published novel is also about a person who really lived but whose story is largely made up. In my case I had to fabricate his name, as well, because whereas this man was the only fellow asylum patient whose portrait  Vincent Van Gogh painted, he was never identified. I wasn’t quite as brave as Attenberg–it’s much more courageous, I think, to write the first-person account of a little-known historical figure than one entirely unknown. In any case, a reader will get to know my MC as we do Mazie–through diary entries.

I only hope I’ve done it half as well as Jami Attenberg in Saint Mazie.







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