THE AFFAIRS OF OTHERS, by Amy Grace Loyd. Picador, 291 pp., $24.
'The Affairs of Others," a debut novel by Amy Grace Loyd, former literary editor of Playboy, has such an intense and heady narrative voice that it recalls those occasions when a substance one has just ingested is a whole lot stronger than expected. One is overwhelmed by the scent of a gardenia, by disturbing sounds from the upstairs apartment, or perhaps by the features on the face of the policeman who has just knocked at the door.
" ... [H]e pulsed past me and roamed feet from me; a wiry man, it appeared, with the city all through him. He had a long bone of a nose on a short face, a smallish cleft chin, a profusion of eyebrows. ... I tried not to see so much, not today, not the wave in his thick hair or his sun-loving skin and the wide pores there, or the day-old beard coming in that was a field of hard black pushing and pushing."
This is thirty-something Brooklyn landlady Celia Cassill, whose husband died five years ago, leaving her with a mind-altering dose of pain and enough money to buy a building where she has rented out three of the four apartments to people she believes will keep to themselves.
At first, in the immediate wake of her loss, Celia developed Cheryl Strayed syndrome (crazy promiscuity as a result of profound grief, a state Strayed defined in her award-winning essay, "Love of My Life.") Celia stops going to abandoned diners with strangers on the subway, but is obsessed with both privacy and violation, is lonely, fierce and looking too hard at other people's pores. Also, she has a medicine cabinet full of every drug in the world.
Welcome to "Blue Velvet" in Brooklyn. On the top floor of the building is an ancient ferry captain who Celia has been feeding and caring for. He goes missing, causing his daughter to come over and start a fistfight with Celia, who roams the city looking for him. Next floor: a young couple on the rocks, whose life Celia keeps up with by snooping when they're not home. Above her is a gay man named George. The book opens with a party to celebrate his departure for Europe. Though it is not allowed, he has sublet his place to a beautiful middle-aged woman named Hope. Hope is on the run from her marriage, has two grown children, a violent lover and a ravaged erotic intensity that Celia is drawn to beyond hope of resistance.
The lost ferry captain and the sexual vortex surrounding Hope are the main elements of the rather modest plot, but though not much happens, Celia winds up in somewhat better shape to enjoy the party that ends the book. Those who look for their experiences of altered consciousness through the legal drug of fiction will be well satisfied.