Quick ‘Tones

Jazz may be the closest thing we have to a universal language. In its variety of instruments, its profusion of forms, and its embrace of influences, it owns a global musical lexicon and a glittering treasury of artifacts.

All of these facets are on display in Live at the Quick (2002), a concert documentary of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones at the Quick Center For the Arts in Fairfield, Connecticut.

The ensemble features the core Flecktones group: Bela Fleck, the world’s most accomplished banjo player on acoustic and electric synth banjos and guitar; Victor Lemonte Wooten on fretted and fretless basses; Jeff Coffin on tenor, alto, and soprano saxophones, clarinet, and flute; and Future Man, a percussionist who invented the synth-ax drumitar, an instrument that produces pre-recorded electronic percussive effects that he plays along with a traditional drum kit.

Andy Narell plays steel pans and keyboards; Paul Hanson brings on the bassoon; Paul McCandless handles oboe, English horn, soprano and sopranino saxes, and penny whistle; Sandip Burman works the tabla; and Congar ol’Ondar, a Mongolian Tuvan throat singer, resplendent in native costume, sings in transcendent style.

Bela says, “I heard the banjo when I was about eight or nine years old. I fell in love with it, just the sound of it… But growing up in New York City, I was also hearing everything that was happening in the Sixties. The Beatles, Joni Mitchell – those were some of my favorites – all the bands, Chick Corea and jazz, classical music. I just loved it all. And so I’ve tried to play those musics on the banjo and find ways to make it fit… Through the years I’ve run into people that play strange instruments in strange ways…”

“Here’s a guy,” Andy Narell observes, “who took the banjo out of the bluegrass band and is doing something totally different with it. And the band is kind of full of people like that who are doing something different with their instrument.”

“I might be a good guy to call to play the oboe and the English horn,” Paul McCandless notes, “because there aren’t that many guys who improvise and are comfortable in sort of an extemporaneous style on those instruments.”

Jeff Coffin asserts, “I think Bela is an amazing leader of a group that he professes not to lead in some ways.”

“As a leader of a band, I’m a leader among equals.” Bela explains, “It’s not like I can tell anybody, ‘Hey, now I want you to do this.’ It’s not like that. I mean, everything has to be arrived at… in a way where everybody feels good about it. There’s a lot of input. Everybody does their own thing. I don’t really tell people what to play. Unless I have to. Like unless it’s a pressure situation and I feel like I have the solution. That’s another part of my life, that’s producing the records or being the traffic cop in a big situation like this. It’s stressful, but it’s very rewarding when it all comes out good.”

The Quick performance reprises tunes from the Flecktones’ Outbound album (2000) and other numbers, with guest performers accumulating song by song as the set progresses. The video is intercut with interviews of Bela and the band members.

1. intro – “That Old Thing” (woodwind unison with Coffin, Hanson, and McCandless)

2. “Earth Jam” (introducing Wooten, Future Man, and Fleck)

3. “Lover’s Leap” (adding Narell)

4. “Zona Mona”

5. “Ovombo Summit” (solo by Future Man playing synth-ax with the left hand, drums and cymbals with the right)

Bela: “When I was in Newgrass Revival and in the bluegrass world, I learned from Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, and Sam Bush and Stewart Duncan and Vassar Clements. Everything they played I tried to figure out how to play. In the Flecktones I try to figure out what Victor’s playing… I try to learn the rhythms that Future Man is playing. I try to learn the saxophone language – the jazz language that Jeff plays in his solos… It just starts to all creep in. And so, even though my heroes… Chick Coreas and the Charlie Parkers… I probably studied them more. The truth is I probably learned more from the people I play with.”

6. “Hall of Mirrors” (Sandip Burman appears)

7. “Scratch and Sniff” (deploying synthesizers on Hanson’s bassoon and Coffin’s tenor sax)

8. “Amazing Grace” (solo by Wooten in bouncy blues style, melody expressed in overtone harmonics)

9. “Big Country” (full band)

Bela: “Big Country” is one of those tunes that just sort of arrived in my head – done – in my mind. And what I do when that happens is I call myself. I call my machine at home. And I sing the melody. And I can’t, I’m not, I shouldn’t be singing in the first place. But it’s just the only thing I can do since the melody’s gonna be gone; in another minute it’ll be gone. That’s the nature of composition… the inspiration factor. And then there’s the craft. How do you take that inspired moment and how do you make it into something that’s complete and makes sense all the way through?”

10. “Alash Khem” (Alash River Song”) (solo by Cogar ol’Ondar)

Bela: “Ondar would have to be one of those things that just fell into our lap. It was just a perfect fit from the first time. And audiences, their minds are blown when they hear a guy get up there and sing three notes at one time. You know they’ve never heard that before.”

That includes your reviewer, who feared, on first hearing Congar, that he was having an auditory hallucination.

11. “A Moment So Close” (featuring vocals by Future Man and Ondar)

12. “Prelude From Violin Partita No. 3” by J.S. Bach (Fleck, acoustic banjo solo)

Bela: “So we always change things around… We don’t even write the set list ’til right before we go on stage. Never play the same show twice in a row. We do all these things to try and trick ourselves into being spontaneous… And it happened. It works a lot of the time.”

13. “Hoe Down” (from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo ballet, with full band, featuring a blues raga break with Fleck and Burman trading measures on banjo and tabla)

14. encore – “Ah shu Dekio” (Congar ol’Ondar on morinchur and vocals with full band)

The Live at the Quick video was directed by Marc Smerling for Notorious Pictures. A Live at the Quick CD was also released in 2002.

There is no better way to enjoy music than to be there with the musicians while they make it. Since we cannot always be with world class performers where they work, we can be grateful for the medium that transports them to us. At our leisure we can hear and see Bela Fleck coaxing the contrapuntal intricacies of Bach from the banjo, Congar ol’Ondar conjuring a trio from his throat, and countless other priceless coins from the inexhaustible mint of concerts on film.


(Review posted on Amazon.com, May 8, 2017)


Passions on the Half Shell

Raw emotions keep the kettle aboil in Broadchurch (2013), a sixteen-episode series set in the small tourist-friendly seaside town of the title on the southern coast of England. The double case whodunit observes all the formal conventions of the mystery genre: the helpless victim, the shock of the affected parties, the dogged efforts of the detectives, the suspicious behavior of  likely culprits, the enigmatic clues, the red herrings dragged across the trail. What distinguishes Broadchurch among the proliferate, often intricately clever, species of murder mysteries is the emphasis on character over plot, and the searing portrayals of emotional distress in all concerned, the investigators as well as the investigated.

Police procedure, forensic science, and legal conundrums are crucial to the proceedings but take a back seat to the foreground anguish, outrage, grief, indignation, lust, hysteria, rancor, remorse, mistrust, guilt, and see-saw relations among the characters. The web is complex and deep; every strand plucked reverberates the whole.

An eleven year-old boy is found dead, lying face down on the beach. The town constabulary has been assigned Alec Hardy (David Tennant), a new chief inspector with a damaged reputation to repair. His detective sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), lifelong resident of the town, had expected promotion but instead must work with the taxing, abrasive new boss. Many of the possible suspects cannot or will not account for their movements. The local press has an eager young reporter willing to compromise journalistic integrity to win his spurs, while a heartless professional from a London daily has been dispatched to steal the story. Commercial interests worry that the paparazzi might scare off the tourist trade.

A past unsolved case haunts Inspector Hardy, the murder of a young girl and disappearance of her baby sitter that was allegedly botched when the detective carelessly allowed critical evidence to be stolen. Both cases devour him and drag in reluctant Detective Sergeant Miller.

Local inhabitants in the simmering town of 15,000 know each other painfully well. Their concourse lends itself to undigested jealousies, long-tended grudges, and half-hidden secrets. Their intimacies and loyalties are threatened and tested by the murder investigation. Coincidences and cross purposes abound.

There is, for example, a personal rivalry between headstrong defense attorney Sharon Bishop (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and arrogant prosecutor Jocelyn Knight (Charlotte Rampling), her former mentor. Reverend Paul Coates (Arthur Darvill), himself not beyond the reach of the investigation, treads carefully among thorny issues presented by his parishioners while his offers of spiritual solace fall on stony ground.

Chris Chibnall created the series for Kudos Film and Television. The Wessex location, with its restless sea, its towering cliffs, and its claustrophobic village, provides visual tension to the accumulating suspense. Sweeping panoramas of verdant fields and sparkling waters in the bay promise that life endures in spite of human agonies.

Sparks fly, passions flame, and fevers never cool in this gripping, intoxicating series.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, March 29, 2017)

The Three Fathers of Bela Fleck

In the summer of 2010 the Schermerhorn Symphony Center, home of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, commissioned Bela Fleck to compose a concert piece for banjo and orchestra. “How To Write A Banjo Concerto” (2011) is the intimate documentary film that follows Fleck step by step as he brings the project to fruition.

Since Nashville is also the home of the Grand Ole Opry, a splendid platform for banjo artistry, it was fitting that the world’s first composition for banjo and orchestra should be entrusted to Nashville resident Bela Fleck, the world’s primo virtuoso of this instrument.

Tony Trischka, Bela’s banjo teacher, said of him, “In a very short amount of time he sort of ‘osmosed’ everything I could show him.”

Zakir Hussain, who co-wrote the orchestral “The Melody of Rhythm” with Bela, noted, “To have the double duty of composer and soloist must be a daunting experience.”

Although he was raised in a musical family and studied at New York’s The High School of Music and Art, Bela does not read or write traditional musical notation, but banjo tablature, a skeletal shorthand that indicates note placement with staff lines representing the five strings. To compose a concerto for orchestral instruments, Fleck employed Sibelius, a software program that translates tablature into notation.

The circumstances of his upbringing underpinned his motivation for the concerto project. When he was very young, Fleck’s father, a professor of music, “flew the coop”, leaving Bela to be reared in New York City by his step-father Joe Paladino, a concert cellist.

“I’m not just a banjo player trying to write a concerto,” he says. “I’m Bela Anton Leos trying to write a concerto. Bela Bartok, Anton Webern, and Leos Janacek. The person who gave me all those names disappeared after I was born. I think that’s why this whole project is so important to me. Because of my father.”

When Trischka wondered aloud whether it might be time for Fleck to meet his father, Bela agreed. At the University of Maryland, “Some of the students were waiting in line at his father’s desk… Bela got in the line. When it was his turn, he said, ‘Hi. It’s Bela. I’m your son.’ It was a pretty intense moment.”

Early on in the project Bela makes it very clear to his wife Abigail Washburn, a singer, songwriter, and banjo player in her own right, that this concerto must necessarily be his own composition, arising from his own imagination, bearing his personal stamp. He was determined to divorce his concerto from the bluegrass music traditionally associated with the banjo, even to the extent of side-stepping the key of G Major.

“My banjo is tuned to G Major. That gives it that classic bluegrass sound. Mostly I avoid that sound intentionally.” Although he admits, “(G Major is) inevitable from the point of view that it’s a banjo concerto.”

To insulate himself against distractions, Fleck made two writing journeys, to Cannon Beach in Tillamook, Oregon during October 2010 and to Tecate, Mexico in January 2011.

Fleck found that daily runs along the shoreline and forest trails while listening to classical composers on his iPod stimulated his creative process.

“Right now Bela Bartok is in heavy rotation. I’ve never listened to him before now.” Fleck discovered that the music of Bartok (1881 – 1945), who fled his native Hungary to New York City in the 1930s to escape Nazi oppression, is “wild and complicated and tense.” Bela reads a Bartok biography, “The Naked Face of Genius”, that describes the composer strolling same streets where Fleck grew up.

Bela was averse to collaboration, but he did solicit advice.

“The first concerto I saw that was written and performed by a living human being was by Edgar Meyer. He’s my entree into this world, and without Edgar I wouldn’t be doing any of this stuff.”

Bela’s Nashville neighbor Edgar is a virtuoso double bass player and composer trained in the classical tradition. With impeccable gravity about music, Meyer can be counted on never to spare anyone’s feelings. In the short film “Obstinato”, about their 2004 “Music For Two” tour, Bela jokes, “I met Edgar in 1982. We were best friends from ’84 to ’86.”

There is feedback from Meyer and others who have performed with Fleck, including Chick Corea, Future Man, Chris Thile, Noam Pikelny, Marcus Roberts, Julian Lage, Greg Liszt, Steve Martin, and Earl Scruggs.

Bela complains, “Everybody hates the ending except…” (Flecktones percussionist) Future Man: “It’s pulling, pulling, pulling… Man, that’s the hippest classical ending ever!”

At the Schermerhorn Center, Bela requests consultations with Nashville Symphony Orchestra principals.

“When I go play with an orchestra, I really don’t develop the kind of friendships or direct contact that I have worth most of the musicians I play with.”

“It’s kind of unorthodox, but I asked them if there was a way I could go meet the principal musicians of each section, get explanations of what their instrument does, what they love about their instrument, and what I might think about in writing for their instrument.”

“With an orchestra you’ve got people sitting sixty feet from each other. There’s no possible way they can hear each other.”

Sam Bacco (Percussion Principal), on orchestral timing: “Great conducers really help. The speed of light is much faster than the speed of sound.”

Leslie Norton (Horn Principal) points out, “You’ve been driving the Jaguar… Really, this is an aircraft carrier. Nothing’s gonna turn on a dime.”

The third of Bela Fleck’s fathers, the man who provided his “first exposure to banjo”, was Earl Scruggs with his rendition of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”, the theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies television series.

“Every time he played the banjo time would stop for me.” And, “Every time he played a song, he played it differently.” It would not be hyperbole to state that every player who has taken up the banjo since Earl Scruggs walked on stage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1945 has been influenced by Earl and his Scruggs licks.

“Without him I would never play the banjo, so I’ve dedicated my concert piece, the concerto, to him. And I think he’s coming to the show.”

One might think Bela Fleck’s place in the pantheon of banjo players past and present would relieve him of performance anxiety. It does not.

Having been asked to bring his banjo to an interview, he remarks wistfully, “They always want my banjo. I’m not good enough without the banjo. I’m like nobody without the banjo.”

Rehearsals with the orchestra are occasions of stress: “I am sucking,” he moans. “I want to kill myself.”

“It feels like the nightmare where I walk around in public with no clothes on.”

The day before the Nashville premiere, he laments, “I’m trying think about what to stress about now, where to put my stress energy.” He itemizes his worries:

1. Premiere of the concerto, sold out performance

2. Live worldwide telecast

3. Concert is being recorded for a CD release

4. Filming it for a documentary

5. Playing a 36-minute piece from memory – with a brand new cadenza

6. Peers, family, and friends will attend – and possibly Earl Scruggs as well

The premiere performance at Schermerhorn Center on September 22, 2011, conducted by Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero, presented in excerpts in the film, is a seamless success. The audience acclaims it with a standing ovation.

Best of all, Earl Scruggs does indeed attend. After the concert he tells Bela, “You had it all in your lap.”

“Well, I was petrified.”

Scruggs concludes, “Nobody else knew it but you.”

The documentary closes with a relaxed celebration brunch on the back porch of the Fleck residence with an infectious jam (“Come and Stay With Me”) featuring Abigail and Bela, Sam Bush, Future Man, Rayna Gellart, Jeff Keith, Kai Welsh, Jun Iwasaki, Brittany Haas, Lauren Rioux, and Bryn Davies.

“How To Write A Banjo Concerto” was directed by Bela’s half-brother Sascha Paladino. Fleck’s comments not expressed in the dialog are scrolled in white letters superimposed on the screen.

“The Imposter Concerto” was released on CD in 2013 accompanied by a three-movement piece for banjo and string quartet called “Night Flight Over Water” with Bela and Brooklyn Rider.

Earl Scruggs passed away on March 12, 2012.

Joe Paladino died on August 13, 2013.

Bela avows, “Abigail is easily the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” With the birth of their son Juno in May 2013, Bela Fleck is now himself a father.

(Review posted on Amazon.com on March 7, 2017)

Let It Rain

The Burden of Gratitude: The Chronicles of Bayboro Correctional Facility II (2014, Treadmill Books LLC) presents the novelette of the title, four short stories, and a story excerpt by Bela Abel. This work is the second in a Chronicles trilogy.

The author informs us in his Foreward that he did not compose the events depicted in the tales; he “witnessed” them. They are fictionalized accounts and the words that convey them flowed from “some ethereal pre-existence”. Bela Abel’s tales are not so much about incarceration as they are about the consequences that confinement imposes on the psyche.

“Imprisonment is a kind of salutary impairment. It might be useful in the short run, but with longer times it carries nothing but harm.”

The stories are rock ribbed with particulars of prison life: cell dimensions, daily routines, lockdowns, prisoner transport, hospital and exercise facilities, bunk assignments, chow, work duties, jail currency (packs of tobacco; bags of instant coffee.) The look and feel of iron bars imbedded in concrete, encircling fences, coils of razor wire, guard towers, and tantalizing glimpses of ordinary life carried on outside the prison walls emphasize the enforced claustrophobia of state-ordained confinement and the perils of interaction among men who can escape neither their surroundings nor each other.

“Prison existence is like living on a tectonic fault line… there is so much built-up pressure there.”

  1. Mama’s Loving Boy

Jason Falk, inmate librarian for more than ten years of the Bayboro Correctional Facility law library, acts as informal counselor for convicts under the impression that they may have a legal dodge to escape their sentences. Falk is a patient listener, but he has no happy answers for any of them.

Falk meets Whittie Alders, a young white man who claims he had sex with his mother, then killed her. Alders is neither bright nor communicative, so Falk, fascinated with his story, ploddingly teases narrative fragments from him. Eventually, Whittie’s disconsolate situation infects Falk with despair. He flees from the library, only to encounter an old black man, weeping. Upon inquiry, the man reports having learned that his mother has just died only two months before his release, after waiting 35 years.

Whittie is empty of remorse for his matricide. The weeping convict, having served his sentence, will have nothing but remorse to accompany his freedom.

2. The Mystery of Butt-Naked Chief Big Hawk

Chief Big Hawk stands naked, planted on a central corridor with his arms crossed over his chest, oblivious to the congress of inmates passing to and fro, “…above this crowd, solid and still like a rock island midstream in an overflowing mountain river,” calmly staring into the distance.

Abel etches the Chief with lithic figures. “His skin is reddish like those famous rocks in southern Utah.” “He has sharp features as if his face was hewn from those southwestern rocks with a rough chisel.”

Mark, obsessed with curiosity but lacking the temerity to approach the Chief, consults with fellow inmates. He apologizes, “I am just trying to understand something that seems strange to me.”

Aubrey Stokes, Bayboro’s oldest inmate, warns him. “Your curiosity will undo you! The rule of survival in prison is: mind your own business and don’t meddle with something that you do not understand!”

Ollie Lavender opines that the Chief is homosexual. Professor Loon tells Mark that the Chief is a Medicine Man and he is therefore not bound by the Adamic taboos against nudity observed by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Mark’s cellmate Devon believes that the Chief is offering his penis as a landing limb for “Woggyboos.”

Chief Big Hawk proves to be very approachable. He fashions a clay pipe and shares the “calumet filled with Chief’s magic tobacco.” The Chief satisfies Mark’s curiosity with an object lesson about vessels (pipes/bodies) and the spirits (smoke/soul) they contain. Mark learns, in the same way that Carlos Castaneda did in his studies of Native Americans, that “The world was infinite and beautiful and there were no fences which could contain us forever.”

3. The Price of Freedom

Jorge Sanchez, an attendant at the Bayboro Fort Zoo and Natural History Museum, happens to be an ex-convict who served 7 years at the Bayboro Correctional Facility for “receiving stolen property.” He was never even suspected for his 42 successful bank robberies whose swag he invested prudently, depositing accrued dividends in offshore accounts now worth $7 million. He plans to use his “mazuma” for retirement on the Mediterranean island of Formentera.

In this poignant inversion fable, enriched with clever correspondence between liberty and finance, Jorge finds his sympathies engaged by Antipous, an orangutan from Borneo. A zoo is, after all, an animal jail whose inmates are 100% innocent. Jorge ponders, “Is being a hominid a crime?” He resolves to spend part of his fortune to liberate Antipous.

Freeing a great ape and returning him to his natural habitat is a daunting and expensive proposition, and Jorge prepares for it with all the meticulous care that made him a prosperous bank robber. The elaborate caper is complicated, well-crafted, suspenseful, and grips our attention as tightly as the totemic Morgan silver dollar Antipous always clutches in his fist.

4. Full Moon, Blue Room, Blue Angel

Fulmar Lapp Clerjaud, a 37-year inmate of Bayboro, lies dying of lung cancer in the Blue Room, a hospice within the prison hospital. His last anxious wish is for one final cigarette.

He gazes through a window at the Moon, so bereft of energy that he feels its tidal effect on the fluids in his own body. He contrasts the purity, serenity, and eternity of the Moon with corporal corruption and decay, excrescences and odors, and ephemeral human concerns.

Fulmar attempts a desperate trade of his valuable Blue Angel watch with a correctional officer for a pack of smokes; he is ripped off. In terminal despair, he is visited by Lady Indigo, another “blue angel” who grants him a final wish.

5. The Burden of Gratitude

In a book called The Parables of Old Damascus Montgomery Lee Bobo reads the story of Agneus, a merchant of Aleppo, encumbered by a “death debt” he owes a shepherd who saved his life.

Bobo is an inmate at Bayboro Correctional who has managed to get himself into hock with Red, a procurer of items not customarily available behind bars at exorbitant prices enforced by the brutal Moe.

“In prison, majority clings to its ilk.” Bobo would like to do his time with as little social intercourse as possible, but crosses swords with two gay inmates. He assaults one over a misunderstanding in the shower. The other saves his life when he takes a beating from Moe. Now Bobo has a “death debt” of his own.

The Age of Manaclethnos, a book loaned him by Aubrey Stokes, teaches Bobo that the old era of iron shackles has been superseded by the “felicitous enthrallment” of masters enslaving people by means of economic dependence, social stricture, and legal conformity. Observing untamed nature from the prison yard, he notices flocks of geese diverting their migration path to avoid flying over the prison, the mating dance of bumblebees beyond the fences, and the unimpeded flight of sparrows through coils of concertina razor wire.

Bela Abel’s fables are constructions of wry juxtapositions, sharp ironies, and empathetic warmth executed in supple language that encompasses both scientific precision and organic imagery. He is a superb storyteller with a masterful grasp of pace and evocative characterizations. Deeply respectful of nature and bemused by our human delusion that we somehow exist apart from it, he observes: Homo sapiens is “a cloud of intelligent locusts, universal consumers, and destroyers.”

Fortunately, for the sake of all other life forms on the planet: “Rain… With equal indifference, the rain washes away the footprints left by good men and thugs. Nature does not care about our daily struggles and the infrequent right things which we do… Rain does not care.”

(Review posted on Amazon.com, November 16, 2016)

Life Slices

Carol is annoyed that only she can hear the bananas ringing in the produce section at Wal-Mart. She always picks up because sometimes the calls are coming from Jupiter.

She lives in her van that she also uses for her pizza delivery job. Her wages are less than minimum. The tips are sometimes good, sometimes not. Carol supplements her income selling the customers blow jobs at $10 a pop.

Her probation officer is an emotional wreck in a crumbling marriage. Her court-appointed psychiatrist is indifferent, merely prescribing tiny white pills to stabilize her moods. Carol is bipolar, given to cutting, despondency, insecurity, dreamy disjunction from her surroundings, unable and unwilling to fashion a future for herself. She drifts from moment to moment, incident to incident, coupled to her desolate past, overwhelmed by her dreary present.

Christmas Carol Madison is bananas.

Carol is in awe of Jordan, her pizza shop Adonis, a young achiever destined for importance. She is spitefully resentful of Sabrina, Jordan’s too-perfect girlfriend. As she comes to know them, she finds that under their attractive peels they too are bananas.

The tiny white pills help. Carol’s life had been “a butterfly going back to being a caterpillar”, “Kafka’s Metamorphosis in reverse.”

Inspired by an unexpected friendship she develops with Sabrina, Carol decides to take control of her life cycle. Why should she not shed her cocoon and become a butterfly? After all, she “reads a ton”, her favorite, the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. She believes that many celebrated writers – “Tolstoy, Philip K. Dick, Hemingway, Lovecraft, Kerouac, Ezra Pound” – were bananas. She downplays her nose and lip piercings with makeup, upgrades her wardrobe, swaps her pizza delivery job for a gig at Boston Stoker, a cigar and espresso cafe across the street from Wright State University, where she enrolls to study literature. She nurtures hope of having an apartment, perhaps even a boyfriend, a family.

Carol narrates her story as it unfolds with digressive passages that revisit the squalid life she has survived. She describes the loneliness her prostitute mother imposed on her, the drab Dayton, Ohio Rust Belt decay that surrounds her, the meager supplies she gets by on, and why she has a parole officer and a court-appointed psychiatrist.

She ruminates incessantly; her fascinations overflow the lip like spilled espresso: why her mother bequeathed her the whimsical name “Christmas Carol”, how the universe works, why we have wars, how coffee came to Europe, the vocal range of an operatic baritone, who really invented pizza, why all Catholic churches smell alike.

Carol’s odyssey runs along endless Interstates: I-71 over the Jeremiah Morrow Bridge,  I-75, I-80, I-40 through the deserts of the Southwest where “huge outcroppings of wind-scarred rock rise into red sky and cliffs drop right off the highway.”

In Banana Sandwich Steve Bargdill serves us a compelling, page-pushing story in carefully-crafted language that both embraces the gritty, smelly, palpably impoverished world Carol inhabits and vaults into sublime arias of starry desert nights (“the coyote’s howl climbs up your spine”), skeletal abandoned structures (“empty parking lots, grass growing up between the cracks in the pavement, low hanging power lines that you could reach out and touch with your fingertips”), sumptuous desserts (chocolate raspberry balsamic truffles, cinnamon raisin bread pudding, chocolate pear torte), arresting fragrances (“lingering incense, flowers, oil, beeswax candles”), and incidental flora (wild chamomile, trillium, Virginia bluebells, white valerian). Vivid evocations of landscape, buildings, store and car interiors, meals and sexual encounters ride shotgun with Carol’s recollections.

The assonance in the title Banana Sandwich is alluring, a come-hither invitation to bathe in physical sensations. Bargdill delivers a powerful tale, a tasty pizza with all the toppings, splendidly enriched by appetizing chunks of anecdotal history and piquant drippings of atmosphere. The plot devours our attention and drives like hunger to a satisfying conclusion.

Banana Sandwich is delicious –  a spicy, savory feast. We want very much to order another helping.

(Review posted on Amazon.com, May 21, 2016)

Rick and Morty Forever

Rick Sanchez, a flask swigging, morally relativistic, quantum party animal and super-genius inventor, has returned after a lengthy absence to live with his daughter Beth, an equine surgeon, her insecure, unemployed husband Jerry Smith, their impressionable teenage daughter Summer, and their nervous, fretful son Morty. Rick has enlisted Morty to be his wing man and fellow adventurer in a series of inter-dimensional, trans-temporal, and routinely hair-raising capers.

Belching, stammering, chin perpetually slathered with drool, Rick occupies himself crafting marvels in the family garage for his own amusement from household odds and ends and exotic minerals from other worlds, exposing himself and Morty to a googolplex of dangers, with warning advisories typically issued just after the nick of time.

“I know that new situations can be intimidating,” Rick assures his grandson. “You’re lookin’ around and it’s all scary and different. But, you know, meeting them head on, charging right into them like a bull, that’s how we grow as people. I’m no stranger to scary situations. I deal with them all the time. Now, if you stick with me, Morty, you’re gonna be… Holy crap, Morty! Run! I’ve never seen that thing before in my life. I don’t know what the hell it is. We gotta get out of here, Morty! It’s gonna kill us. We’re gonna die!”

Dispatching him on an emergency mission into the internal organs of a dying man, Rick slams a helmet on Morty, positions him on a miniaturization platform, and punches a control button, mentioning at the last moment, “Hold your breath until the process is over or your lungs will collapse.”

Rick is not merely the smartest man on earth. He is the smartest man in the universe. He has fashioned a handheld device to twist open portals to an infinity of parallel universes. In the infinity of timelines every possible Rick or Morty does or does not exist. Regardless where his portals lead him, Rick’s wave function rarely collapses from uncertainty.

He is impatient and unsparing. “There is no God, Summer.” Rick coaches his granddaughter. “You gotta rip that bandaid off now. You’ll thank me later.”

Rick invents a miniature robot with artificial intelligence to pass him the table butter. “What is my purpose?” the robot asks. “You pass butter,” Rick says. “Oh, my God,” the robot slumps in despair.

Arriving at the Blips and Chitz arcade for a holiday of electronic abandon, Rick raises cash by peddling a weapon to an assassin. “You sold a gun to a murderer so you could play video games?” a scandalized Morty cries. “Yeah, sure. I mean, if you spend all day shuffling words around you can make anything sound bad, Morty.”

Rick has built himself a car equally well equipped for road trips or space jaunts. “The first rule of space travel, kids, is always check out distress beacons. Nine out of ten times it’s a ship full of dead aliens and a bunch of free shit! One out of ten times it’s a deadly trap, but I’m willing to roll those dice.”

When alien parasites attempt to populate the earth by assuming affable characters and implanting bogus fond memories of themselves in their human hosts, Rick must lock down the Smith house to stymie the confusing proliferation of invaders.

“Dad, why does our house have blast shields?” his daughter inquires in surprise.

“Trust me, Beth. You don’t want to know how many answers that question has.”

Landing on a planet to refill his wind shield wipers, Rick informs Morty, “It’s a purge planet. They’re peaceful. And then, you know, they just purge.”

Morty: “Tha… that’s horrible!”

Rick: “Yeah. You wanna check it out?”

To power the battery in his car, Rick siphons energy from a micro-verse of intelligent beings he has created, endlessly churning treadmills that they think supply the juice for their own world. They have evolved a genius of their own called Zeep who replaces the treadmills with energy captured from a mini-verse he has invented that in turn has evolved beings who have created a teeny-verse they can sap for power. A battery failure pulls Rick and Morty through levels of micro-travel to solve the energy crisis. Rick and Zeep face off in the teeny-verse, trading jibes.

Zeep objects, “That’s what you use my universe for, to run your car?”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Rick sneers. “There’s always Triple A… Someone has to bring a little culture. And it certainly can’t be someone whose entire culture powers my brake lights!”

Meanwhile, Summer has been left behind in the car, shivering in fright as the car executes its vague order from Rick to “keep Summer safe” with heartless efficiency and horrific consequences.

Some of Rick’s inventions run off the rails with catastrophic results. A love potion he gives Morty to help him seal a romance triggers a storm of rabid suitors for Morty’s attention and Rick’s concoction to offset the love potion “Cronenberg’s” the entire human species into mantid monsters that decapitate their mates. Rick and Morty escape to a parallel reality where everything is identical except that they are dead and must bury their own bodies in the Smith’s yard in order to effect their seamless substitution  of themselves.

In a subsequent episode, Morty implores his sister not to run away from home. He points to the back yard from Summer’s bedroom. “That out there? That’s my grave. On one of our adventures, Rick and I basically destroyed the whole world. So we bailed on that reality and we came to this one because it wasn’t destroyed. And in this one we were dead. So we came here an… an… and we buried ourselves. And we took their place. And every morning, Summer, I eat breakfast twenty yards away from my own rotting corpse!”

“So you’re not my brother?”

“I’m better than your brother. I’m a version of your brother you can trust when he says ‘don’t run’. Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everyone is gonna die. Come watch TV.”

The animated Rick and Morty series (2013), created by Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon, was introduced on the Adult Swim network (a prodigious cradle of invention for humorists working in video media). Roiland provides the voices of the title characters. The featured voice actors are Sarah Chalke, Chris Parnell, Kari Wahlgren, and Spencer Grammer, supported by a multiverse of regular voices and an impressive roster of guest appearances, including David Cross, Stephen Colbert, Tom Kenny, Alfred Molina, Keith David, Alan Tudyk, Ice-T, Dana Carvey, and others. Ryan Elder composed all the music, kicking off with a pulsating Rick and Morty theme reminiscent of Doctor Who that throbs like an accelerating heartbeat.

Writers and story board artists drive the concepts and dialogue: Ryan Ridley, Tom Kauffman, Wade Randolph, Eric Acosta, and others too numerous to list.

Rick and Morty is a teeming comic thicket that bristles with sharp stabs at family values, formal education, sexual mores, species chauvinism, conventional science fiction tropes, and Panglossian optimism. Is this the best of all possible worlds? Let’s hope not. Let’s party. Wubba-lubba-dub-dub!

The pilot episode concludes with Rick’s fervid lubricated rant: “It’s just Rick and Morty. Rick and Morty and their adventures, Morty. Rick and Morty forever and forever a hundred years Rick and Morty. Some… things… Me and Rick and Morty runnin’ around and… Rick and Morty time… a- all day long forever… All a- a hundred days Rick and Morty! Forever a hundred times… over and over Rick and Morty… adventures dot.com. W W W dot at Rick and Morty dot com W W W… Rick and Morty adventures… Ah- hundred years… every minute Rick and Morty dot com… W W W a hundred times… Rick and Morty dot com…”

Body Count

“What in God’s name does it mean to be human if we have to be saved from ourselves by a machine?”

The machine in John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1967) is Shalmaneser, a Micryogenic, liquid helium-cooled super-computer, the property of mega-corporation General Technics, so powerful and sophisticated in its capacity and processing speed that scientists and philosophers debate whether it is self-aware. There is no dispute that it is the most functionally intelligent entity on the planet.

Shalmaneser is vital to many of GT’s enterprises, among which is SCANALYZER, a broadcast service that supplies daily holographic news programs to its subscribers in the persons of Mr. and Mrs. Everywhere, projections of the users’ own images from the world’s hot spots and happening events right into their own living rooms.

GT also owns the rights to develop the Mid-Atlantic Mining Project, the world’s most promising source for energy and precious minerals, if only some way could be devised to exploit them.

“Old GT”, ninety-one year old General Technics owner and founder Georgette Tallon Buckfast, is still very much in charge and looking not a day over sixty, due to periodic replacements of failing organs, frequent treatments of her bone structure and musculature, as well as regular cosmetic enhancements, courtesy of Guinevere Steel and her Beautiques.

Physiological and cosmetic maintenance are available to all who can afford them, aiding their longevity and acquisition of social status. Good for them but not necessarily for the world they inhabit that suffers from a dramatic excess of population with its attendant pressure on resources, living space, and general equanimity.

According to census, if all human beings on earth stood shoulder to shoulder, they would cover every square inch of the island of Zanzibar.

Crowds everywhere have their consequence in outbursts of rage; muckers often appear, venting their psychoses in random homicides; subversive politics and religious intolerance breed saboteurs; psychological breakdowns and furious resentment against nearly universal reproductive limits and eugenic controls are on the rise.

Norman House, a bright, ambitious executive in the inner circle of GT’s brain trust, is its only Afram, measured in his appearance and demeanor, and driven to prove that he belongs among the elite. His roommate, Donald Hogan, is a reserved and scholarly synthesist, well paid by a government agency to study areas of interest to himself, absorbing all he can about trends in science and social developments. The roomies get along without friction, enjoy shiggies of easy virtue according to their proclivities, with drugs agreeable to their tastes, and manage to cocoon themselves from the stresses rampant among their Greater New York neighbors. Norman is unaware that Donald is a sleeper spy for the U.S. military.

Zadkiel Obomi, the dying President of Beninia, an impoverished, poorly developed West African nation on the Bight of Benin, the only post-colonial leader his country has ever had, is worried that it will be torn to pieces by vying neighbors or be subjected to takeover by former colonial masters after his imminent death. He has conceived a daring strategy to save his peaceful Shinka people, but he needs the aid of his longtime friend, Elihu Masters, U.S. Ambassador to Beninia, to involve General Technics, Shalmaneser, and the Mid-Atlantic Mining Project.

In the Pacific Ocean, from the one hundred islands nation of Yatakang, comes stupendous news. Doctor Sugaiguntung, genius of genetic manipulation, has invented a process that will guarantee optimal, supremely intelligent children, free of hereditary maladies, to all prospective parents. The repressive Solukarta regime has trumpeted the breakthrough, but it has not offered to share the technology with anyone.

The stunning promise of such a scientific miracle for the future of all humankind has provoked jealousy, outrage, hope, and fear among the rest of the world’s population, clamoring for their governments to take action to ensure that they too can profit from this astonishing biological advantage.

Even popular sociologist curmudgeon Chad Mulligan has surfaced from his cynical, despondent, self-imposed exile to respond to the challenge. The threat to U.S. interests has prompted the activation of Donald Hogan for a dangerous mission to Yatakang.

John Brunner presents his novel with innovative style, ancillary characters, cut-ins from the “happening world”, topical clips from SCANALYZER, and wry observations from Chad Mulligan. Alternating chapters between mainline action, sideline views, and close-up glimpses of the tense, conflicted world, give us a whirling sensation, as if the story were a galaxy of reflections from mirrors rotating at the hub of a carousel.

In the 30,000 years since modern humans outlasted the competition to emerge as the earth’s most dominant primate, the world’s human numbers swelled to 3.47 billion by 1967. Today, less than half a century later, the population exceeds 7.3 billion people, an increase of 110%. Can we doubt that John Brunner’s alarm at population growth was less than prophetic? Where will we stand a half century from today?

(HIPCRIME  You committed one when you opened this book. Keep it up. It’s our only hope. – The Hipcrime Vocab by Chad C. Mulligan)

(Review posted on Amazon.com, November 2015)