In addition to having published four novels and a short-story collection since 2006, Jami Attenberg once went viral for busting a bike thief in Brooklyn, which makes her one of the most New York authors of the 21st century, as far as I'm concerned. It makes sense then that after 2012's bestselling Midwest family saga "The Middlesteins" she should return to New York with her new book, "Saint Mazie," an engaging work of historical fiction based on the life of Mazie Phillips-Gordon, a woman once known as "Queen of the Bowery."
Attenberg first discovered Mazie — who was the ticket taker and proprietress of the Venice, a movie theater in the heart of the Lower East Side — when a friend suggested she read a 1940 profile by the New Yorker's Joseph Mitchell. That piece inspired her fictionalized portrait of a celebrated neighborhood fixture who "was charismatic and generous, and led a very big life for someone who barely left a twenty-block radius." Manning her ticket booth, walking the streets, Mazie helped many people who were homeless, especially during the Great Depression.
The novel represents a reconstruction within a reconstruction, with Attenberg choosing a documentary format for her account. The bulk of it is devoted to a diary, kept by Mazie and uncovered decades after the events it describes, but there are also elements of what becomes an invented oral history: a chorus of talking heads, including Mazie's neighbor, the son of one of her love interests and the great-granddaughter of the Venice's manager, and a few brief excerpts from Mazie's unpublished autobiography as well.
Occasionally, this conceit stretches thin — as when Mazie's sister Jeanie writes convenient extended entries in the diary, or distracting, undeveloped romantic tensions arise between Attenberg's fictional documentarian and a couple of her interview subjects — but for the most part, it's an effective vehicle for a lot of compelling, immediate, first-person prose.
Mazie's voice carries the novel; witty, passionate, high-spirited and warm, she is the best possible guide to her own life. The diary opens on her 10th birthday, after she and Jeanie leave their abusive, poverty-stricken childhood home in Boston for life in New York with their older sister Rosie and her husband Lou. It follows her through a wild, hedonistic youth ("The whole world's my sweetheart"), the ups and downs of her love life ("His lips were like cool jelly on my skin and I knew he was not the one for me") and her many trials with a loving but flawed family. We see her work hard and sacrifice and empathize to the point of pain.
Most of all, we see her, both restless and constant, roaming and loving the city's streets. "These streets are dirty, but they're home, and they're beautiful to me," she tells us. "If you can't see the beauty in the dirt then I feel sorry for you."
Over time, she eases into her role as Saint Mazie of the Lower East Side — a nonpracticing Jew, she finds her calling in a near-spiritual dedication to compassion, informed by her experiences as well as her close friendship with a young nun. "Some saints," she explains, "begin their lives imperfect and then turn into something special. Sister Tee says we are the sum of our imperfections. We sin and then we learn from our sins."
At one point, the owner of Mazie's diary describes the experience of reading it from cover to cover. He says it was "chattering at me, asking to be read," and that "[n]ear the end 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."
This is a bold move on Attenberg's part — she attributes awe to her own character at the power of a fictional artifact she has created and produced. Luckily for everyone, such confidence is warranted.
Attenberg has written a winning novel and a lovely tribute to a New Yorker whose only claim to fame is her outsized kindness. Her Mazie is richly imagined and three-dimensional, and in these pages she lives forever.
Cha is the author, most recently, of "Beware Beware."
Grand Central Publishing: 324 pp., $25