In Bag Lady Barbie and Cross Dressing Ken's Journey Home, Carol makes a journey from homelessness and alcoholism to healing and home. Driven into a deep depression by the death of her daughter, Carol, a funny, wise-cracking, "streetie" has been homeless for three years. We (argh) meet her as she's collecting change, nodding in and out of awareness. She gathers her box of "donations" and discovers in amongst the change a matchbook with a number scrawled in the inside cover. Out of boredom, she calls the number using the shelter's courtesy phone. Suddenly she's hurled back into the life she's been trying to forget. The voice on the other end claims to have an answer to the question that unraveled her world to begin with—the death of her daughter Ella, a death she was told was suicide.
Stunned that the voice seems to know her, her story, and, more importantly, the truth about how Ella died. Carol is unnerved. She hangs up and hits the street. But soon she calls again and in time visits different places in the city—catching a glimpse of Ella's last weeks of life. During Carol's search for answers we meet Maurice, her hilarious fellow "streetie," a cross-dressing, flamboyant gay best friend who initially helps her navigate homelessness, then helps her navigate her way back from grief and loss. We also meet Yolie, a shy young woman who knew Carol from her old life, and who, with the help of Reverend Reggie and the congregation of blue hairs at Holy Redeemers, is determined to save Carol. Throughout the book in a series of flashbacks, we get a glimpse of Ella and Carol's life, unveiling the depths of Carol's loss.
The voice on the phone leads Carol around San Antonio and soon she deduces that Ella was trying to save a friend from a local drug dealer. She comes close to discovering the truth when she finds Ella's friend, dead in an apparent suicide—identical to Ella's death. Carol flees the scene but in her panic, runs into the street and gets clipped by a car. An undercover police officer calls in the accident and we get our first hint that something is wrong. They seem to know her, know what she's been trying to do. She pleads for the matchbook as she is carried into the ambulance and it is the beginning of a realization. Carol has been through this twice before. Carol has been reliving this journey by calling phone numbers that mysteriously appear in her collection box, and insisting to everyone around here that she's searching for the truth, then blocking out the experience when she's picked up and hospitalized. She's been diagnosed, wrongly it turns out, as a schizophrenic.
A new social worker assigned to her case, Arman, sheds some doubt on the diagnosis. Something doesn't feel right to Arman who is a former police officer and is drawn to Carol's plight. Carol doesn't think she's hearing voices, but she knows something is wrong—why can't she remember having made the phone calls before?
Carol leaves the hospital for a halfway house—again. But it isn't long before the grief overwhelms her, the nightmares about Ella resurface and she returns to drinking and living on the street. Back on the street that Carol begins to doubt her sanity. Who in her life is real, she wonders. Could she be hearing voices? She questions the reality of the voice on the phone as well the reality of the people around her—specifically Arman and Maurice. But the voice and the people are very real—and in the case of the voice on the phone, very dangerous.
A series of incidents leads Carol to conclude that Maurice, Arman and the voice on the phone are hallucinations, most likely brought on by her own abuse of alcohol. She decides it's time to leave them behind and get on with life. To begin to heal. When the voice on the phone claims to have Maurice, she ignores it, convinced (although still a bit worried) that neither of them is real.
It takes an encounter with Yolie and the Holy Redeemers congregation for Carol to realize that Maurice is real—and now in the hands of a psychopath—the voice on the phone. The psychopath is ready to close the trap on Carol using Maurice as the bait.
Carol hunts down Maurice, discovering a shocking truth—her husband, Jake, who was thought killed in action 22 years ago, is the voice on the phone. He is alive and has been torturing her by having her relive the loss of Ella over and over. This is a cat and mouse game for Jake, who is now ready to proceed to his end game—killing Carol. (aliens arrive in chapter 14 right here)
Jake, involved in trying to destroy drug networks by protecting local informants, ordered Ella killed, not realizing at the time that she was his daughter. Now he has snapped and Carol has to get her and Maurice out of his final clutches before he kills them too.
Carol and Maurice escape Jake in the same house where Carol found Ella's friend. Jake does not go down easily, ending up as a hood ornament for an 18-wheeler. In the aftermath, Carol and Maurice leave the street together, finding reasons to move on from their own losses and pain and begin to live again.
Ah yes, the psychopath who appears in chapter 14 as the perpetrator. Everyone thinks he’s been dead for 22 years but he’s really here working for the forces of Dog, motherhood and apple pie? No, sorry, that doesn’t fly at all.
And the “we meet her” form drives me crazy. “the reader meets” works better or simply “the novel opens”.
The title makes me think this might be a screwball comedy. Describing Carol as funny and wisecracking makes the arrival of a psychotic killer all that more jarring. A synopsis is not the place for surprises; you want to convey the overall tone of the novel consistently.