Early 20th-century New York and its denizens portrayed through the fictional diary of a nonfictional heroine.
Mazie Phillips was a real person, a rough-and-ready Mother Theresa who walked the streets of Lower Manhattan in the early 1930s, giving out money for food, buying drinks, calling ambulances. She was profiled by New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell in an essay collected in Up in the Old Hotel (1992), which is how Attenberg (The Middlesteins, 2013, etc.) came to know of her. Attenberg's fictional Mazie begins a diary she will keep for 32 years on Nov. 1, 1907, with this entry: "Today is my birthday. I am ten. You are my present." Born in Boston, Mazie now lives in New York with her older sister Rosie, who has rescued her and another sister from their parents, "a rat" and "a simp." Rosie's husband, Louis Gordon, owns a cinema, and at 21, Mazie begins her long career as ticket-seller. A free-thinking, hard-drinking gal who never marries or has children, Mazie carries on an intermittent, lifelong affair with a sea captain. Their first tryst, on the Brooklyn Bridge, is described in the diary with characteristic blunt eloquence. "We pecked at each other for a minute, figuring each other out. Finally he kissed my upper lip, and then my lower lip....He put his tongue where he liked. I could not argue. I did not even try." Mazie's voice is the most successful thing in this book. Perhaps we didn't need Nadine, the fictional documentarian who puts her story together, adding excerpts of interviews with the sea captain's son, Mazie's now-ancient neighbor, and the great-granddaughter of the theater manager. A particularly odd subplot has the man who supposedly found the diary making a play for Nadine.
Too much concept and not enough story, but Mazie might win your heart anyway with her tough-talking mensch-iness.