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)