I wasn’t particularly keen on Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins so you may wonder why Saint Mazie caught my attention: Mazie was the subject of a short essay by Joseph Mitchell first published in The New Yorker and included in his excellent collection Up in the Old Hotel. Like many of Mitchell’s subjects Mazie’s story is a fascinating one – an ordinary working-class New York woman who did something extraordinary. Attenberg has taken Mitchell’s essay and re-imagined Mazie’s life using fictionalised interviews and autobiography extracts with her diary as the novel’s backbone.
Mazie and Jeanie come to live in New York with their sister Rosie and her husband Louis when Mazie is ten. She’s a girl who likes a bit of excitement, wandering off whenever she can, staying out late into the small hours as soon as she’s old enough. Jeanie loves to dance and sets her sights on a career on the stage. All this is a source of terrible anxiety to Rosie, desperate for a child and consumed by obsessive cleaning. At Rosie’s behest, Louis sets Mazie up in the ticket booth of his movie theatre, safely tucked away from trouble. Mazie calls it her cage but it’s where she will spend her working life, sating her lust for adventure by walking the streets at night, visiting the local speakeasy in the Prohibition years and enjoying passionate encounters. She’s always noticed the down-and-outs, moved to lend a hand when children are involved, but as the Depression bites, her nightly wanders gain more purpose. Handing out change and soap, Mazie listens to the stories of the men on the street. Thoroughly acquainted with the humanity and inhumanity, she’s not a woman to be conned but she’s deeply compassionate and sees no difference between many of these men and herself.
Attenberg’s re-imagining brings Mazie vividly to life. She’s a passionate woman who’s seen enough of her parents’ dysfunctional marriage not to want it for herself. She’s bright, clear-eyed and sharp but she won’t turn her back on anyone in need. In the words of one of the interviewees she ‘led a very big life for someone who barely left a twenty-block radius’. By interspersing interviews with the diary entries Attenberg fleshes out a picture of Mazie’s family and neighbourhood, careful to have her characters tell us that their memories are unreliable or that they’re reporting rumours and suppositions. Fictionalisations can often seem clunky, weighed down by meticulous research, but Attenberg’s is executed with a light touch. It made me reach for my copy of Up in the Old Hotel, and I’m pleased to report that she’s remained true to the spirit of her source although, despite her interest in Catholicism, I’m not sure Mazie would have liked being dubbed a saint. No doubt she’d have had something sassy to say about that: ‘Queen of the Bowery’ would have been much more up her street.
Mitchell’s own story is an interesting one. He had a talent for seeking out eccentric characters and getting them to tell him about themselves but, sadly, he was struck by writer’s block. Hired by The New Yorker in 1938 he remained employed by them until his death in 1996 but never wrote anything of note after 1964. His last book was Joe Gould’s Secret about the eponymous author’s own writer’s block. He continued to attend The New Yorker office where they kept a desk for him until his death. Almost worthy of inclusion in his own book, which is highly recommended.