Sunstone Press ($18.95)
by Benjamin Woodard
In fiction, queries that plague memoirists—What makes a life significant enough to share with the public? Are certain achievements worthy of permanent recording?—rarely arise, for the imagination of the author typically eschews any chance of narrative dryness. But sometimes, an author packs too much of a good thing into a tale, resulting in a sort of overstuffed hollowness: here, a character vaults from adventure to adventure with such speed that the reverberations of each event fail to have an impact on the reader. The effect, like that of a dull memoir, is similar: something happens, but the impression left behind—the literary blast shadow—is soft and easily dismissed.
Ginny MacKenzie’s Sleeping with Gypsies hews very close to creative overkill, yet has aspects to recommend it. A wisp of a novel at 164 pages, the narrative is framed as a quasi-memoir penned by Amanda—noctambulist, daughter, sister, niece, civil rights activist, artist, muse, mother, roommate, landlord—as she twinkles through memories. Opening with her unusual childhood in Pennsylvania, where bouts with sleepwalking escort young Amanda to nighttime encounters with local gypsies and a neighborhood prowler known as “the stalker,” the narrative quickly shifts to Amanda’s adult life, her first husband, frustrated painter Munk, and a stint in Florida. Working in hospital administration, Amanda—still only about eighteen years old—tirelessly fights to integrate African-American personnel to the staff before jumping ship to relocate to New York, where she and Munk purchase a loft, have a son, and Amanda checks into Mountaindale, a psychiatric treatment center, for post-partum depression. From here, the novel barrels with breakneck pace through twenty years of marriage, divorce, soul-searching, road trips, and battles, regularly breaching a linear timeline with sparks recalling earlier events, moments that try to tie past and present together.
While the Forrest Gump-ian nature of Amanda’s life is admirable—she does seem to be in the right place at the right time for memorable happenstance—the events constructing her existence rarely require the momentum in which they’re committed to paper. Late in the novel, when speaking to Dove, a young lodger considering body transformation, Amanda pleads, “But why do you want the fat suctioned out of your face? You’ll be sorry when you age and your cheeks sink in.” This sliver of concern falls on deaf ears, yet it oddly rings true for Sleeping with Gypsies, which feels like an epic novel whittled down to the barest of bones. Trials that demand breathing space are instead suffocated and snuffed out within a handful of pages, and though Amanda’s voice remains interesting throughout, it’s difficult to find attachment to her plights due to MacKenzie’s knack for marooning certain facets of her personality for long stretches—or, in the case of sleepwalking, abandoning them completely—leaving the reader with a protagonist that never quite appears genuine.