Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Saint Mazie: What Does It Mean To Be Good?

Jami Attenberg's fantastic new novel Saint Mazie is about a hard-partying maneater named Mazie Phillips-Gordon. Mazie's a real person — a subject of a New Yorker profile in 1940 about how she opened the Manhattan theater she owned to down-on-their-luck dudes during the Great Depression. But Attenberg's novel uses a fictitious diary, as well as "interviews" with some people whose relatives knew Mazie, or who knew Mazie themselves, to construct a portrait of this larger-than-life woman.

The result is just an exuberant, fun-to-read story. Mazie moves from Boston to the lower East Side of Manhattan as a young girl to escape her abusive father. She and her younger sister Jeanie live with their older sister Rosie and Rosie's husband, Louis. Mazie, in her late teenage years, takes quickly to the Manhattan life, staying out all night, flirting with fellas, and generally living for the moment. But Mazie harbors a soft spot for helping people — the paradox of her character.

Rosie and Louis — her parent figures — decide they've had a enough with her wild ways, and plead with her to take over as the ticket-taker for the theater Louis owns. She can't say no to Louis, who she loves for saving her and for taking care of her and sisters. So she agrees — spending her days in the "cage" of the ticket booth, and watching New York City slide by without her. She does manage to step out once in awhile, including with a dashing and World War I hero named the Captain, who becomes her life-long love interest, as he flits in and out of her life.

So the central question of the novel, which really rises to the surface as the Great Depression hits and Mazie spends more and more time helping the homeless: What does it mean to be a good person? Mazie assumes she's bad — she has sex with married men, she flirts, she drinks and smokes, and stays out all night. But her heart's in the right place, isn't it? Her younger sister, by contrast, is a sweetheart who never gave anyone any trouble. Bu she suddenly takes off across the country to make it as a dancer, jilting the man who loves her. She gets in trouble in Chicago and has to return to New York somewhat disgraced. Is Jeanie a good person? And then Louis — Louis may or may not be a criminal. Mazie constantly sees him meeting with shady figures, and he always seems to have money to burn. But he's a big 'ole sweetheart of a man, who loves the sisters, and treats Mazie with nothing but compassion and respect. Is Louis good?

I really loved this novel. It's a great character study and a wonderful depiction of early 20th century New York City. And there aren't too many more fun-to-read writers out there than Attenberg (I loved The Middlesteins, as well.) She's funny, witty, smart-as-hell, and just generally a writer who really seems to enjoy writing every sentence as much as you enjoy reading them. This is highly recommended. Very highly.

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