If you dig into the early acting career of Vida Cebu, one of four bedeviled women whose personalities illuminate Jill Ciment’s darkly comic jewel of a novel, “Act of God,” you will discover that she auditioned for the original off-Broadway production of “Six Degrees of Separation.” While we don’t know whether she ever got the role, the passing nod to the John Guare play provides an apt grace note for Ciment’s newest work of fiction, which also revolves around a small constellation of New Yorkers whose lives are conjoined by the machinations of a master freeloader.
Or rather two freeloaders, to be precise: one relatively harmless, the other quite pernicious.
The former is an 18-year-old Russian scrapper named Ashley whose faux Southern-pedigree moniker belies her southern Siberian origins. Recently fired as an au pair after being caught on nannycam slipping an Ambien to her fidgety young charge, Ashley has furtively holed up in the Brooklyn-brownstone bedroom closet of Vida, who, in her mid-40s, has been enjoying a burst of notoriety after headlining a TV commercial for the first sexual enhancement pill for women.
The more dangerous parasite is an eerily phosphorescent mushroom, redolent of a ’50s sci-fi movie, that has taken up residence in the hall closet of Vida’s unwanted tenants, Edith, a retired legal librarian, and her eternal-hippie twin sister, Kat. “It almost looked as if someone had chewed a piece of iridescence and stuck it, like gum, on the wall,” writes Ciment. “But it wasn’t inanimate like gum; its surface was roiling as if something beneath were struggling to be born.”
Ignoring Edith’s multiple entreaties to investigate, Vida soon finds that the mysterious fungus has also taken root in her bedroom closet, but not before she discovers Ashley hiding there as well and sends her packing. Where Ashley is nonplussed at having cohabitated with a glowing spore (“No big deal. In Russia, mushrooms grow out people’s ears”), the growth is sufficiently threatening to bring in a hazmat-suited biohazard crew that promptly evacuates the building. Edith grabs her rent-control lease; Kat gathers the advice-to-the-lovelorn columns of their late mother, (which she hopes to publish), and, along with their recalcitrant landlady and her Russian intruder, are tossed onto the streets and turned into urban vagabonds — a situation made worse when the insurers refuse Vida reimbursement, judging the event to be the titular act of god.
The trauma of displacement has been an overarching motif in the fiction of Ciment, who, as recalled in her memoir “Half a Life,” was uprooted from her Montreal home at a vulnerable age and endured a rocky road of readjustment growing up on the outskirts of Los Angeles. With its apocalyptic undercurrent and deadpan-hilarious descriptions of the quotidian peculiarities of New York living, however, “Act of God” seems less akin to the American-fish-in-South-Sea-waters spirit of “The Tattoo Artist” and “Teeth of a Dog” and more like a sequel to her gorgeous last novel, “Heroic Measures,” a post-9/11 tale of an elderly couple faced with vacating their East Village apartment after 50 years.
Just as those characters were occasionally upstaged by their ailing dachshund and a hapless terrorist-manque, so Edith and Kat, in their schematically conceived contrast of martinet and free spirit, seem less memorable than their sisters in survival, Ashley and Vida. Whether spearing the largest sausage at a dinner table or finagling a Red Cross cash card from its owner, the doggedly resourceful Ashley may be the more overtly shameless in looking out for number one. But even Vida, flush with Madison Avenue residuals, is not above a little ambulance chasing or trawling behind the back of her agent-slash-best friend to nab an acting gig.
Vida’s compulsively needy heart, with its insistent throb of me-me-me, prevents her from accepting culpability in the unsettled fates of her tenants. The author’s heart, fortunate for us, is capacious: She refuses to demonize Vida (no small thing, as anyone who has experienced landlord-tenant court from the inside will agree). Instead, Ciment offers her an extra shot at redemption. “Act of God” is an act of love, one that is no less funny or endearing for the toughness with which it is bestowed.
Jan Stuart reviews fiction and is the author of “The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece.’’ He can be reached at email@example.com.