February 3: “The Tiki King” by Stacy Tintocalis

Here we are at midweek, author #3 in my special Missouri State University theme week. It’s been a pleasure to read and write on Danielle Evans and Kevin Brockmeier, and there’s been a great response to both of those posts, stats-wise, for the blog. Great things come out of the Ozarks, and if I have to throw a dinner roll at your head to make you understand that, I will (just don’t sue me).

Today I’m featuring Stacy Tintocalis and her collection The Tiki King, put out by Swallow Press in 2010. Stacy teaches some fiction workshops for us at Missouri State and has since before I got here. The weird thing? I’ve never met her. Stacy’s classes are all online, and the rare occasion that Stacy’s made it to Springfield, I haven’t run into her. We’ve corresponded, but that’s it. Considering I got ahold of The Tiki King quite some time before I came to Springfield, I’ve never taken the chance to tell her how much I like her book, but as the motto for Story366 reminds us, better late than never.

“The Tiki King” is a story about generations, about being discontent, and about things never being as good as you remember them. The unnamed narrator/protagonist tells his story, in first person present, as a child in Burbank, California, eleven years old. From my experience, he’s a pretty typical twenty-first-century eleven year old, occupying his time with video games and … biding time until he can get back to video games. He’s not interested in the things his father is interested in, i.e., watching sports, and seems to be generally annoyed by his parents, embarrassed, even. I don’t mean to rail against kids these days, those young whipper-snappers, but the kid comes off pretty genuinely like a kid, unaware of how difficult he’s being, insisting on being entertained at all times, oblivious to the problems his parents are facing. I only bring it up because I admire the voice, Tintocalis nailing the unreliability of this story’s telling, a kid observing something he doesn’t understand and reacting like a kid would. Present tense is the perfect choice, too, as any perspective implied by past tense would probably ruin it. In short, we see a very interesting story through perfectly naive and selfish eyes, and that’s what makes this story work.

The kid’s dad does his share of complaining, too. Burbank isn’t what it used to be, he laments, noting what degeneration and gentrification have both done to his home town. He and our narrator spend Saturdays running errands together, the dad pointing out what’s changed (for the worse), the kid thumbing some personal game system. Maybe I like this story so much because me and my oldest son do this sometimes, run errands, just to get out of the house, him on some device, me paying a bill, buying this, etc. The only difference is I don’t recall the glory days of Springfield—we’ve only lived here a few years—which is good, as he’d probably do what the kid in “The Tiki King” does: roll his eyes and ask me to stop.

One such Saturday leads the duo to the father’s childhood home, which he passes often, which is now for sale. The father stops, finds a key hidden under a rock, and lets himself in. The two take a look around inside, and because that’s how he’s wired, the father remarks on the state of the house, which is, no surprise, not as good as it used to be. The dad is living in the past while the narrator just wants to go home so he can do exactly what he’s doing there, only at home. Eventually, the pair finds themselves in the back yard and the dad describes the set up his own father had constructed, a Polynesian theme, complete with giant Tiki statue, bamboo torches, flowered shirts, and rum drinks served in coconut shells. Grandpa was the Tiki King, on vacation every day, next to his own backyard pool.

This is key, what pulls the story together for me. The grandfather wanted to be somewhere else, the dad wants to be back in time, and the narrator kid doesn’t want to be anywhere, as long as he doesn’t have to participate. It’s a clever set up, this longing, this dissatisfaction, each generation feeling it in a different way. Add to that, the kid’s mom serves as a nice foil—she never complains, is the only character content with living life. Ironically, she has every right to pine for what could have been: She’s a former actor, having given up a promising career for her family. Fantastic characterization, three generations wide.

The dad and the kid, working at odds, eventually have a meltdown/showdown, a true climax, one that Tintocalis extends over several pages. It’s a great scene, this confrontation, set in a dive bar, the culmination of years, of generations, of frustration. Tintocalis makes us writhe in the moment with these rivals, a payoff well worth it on its own. She offers this long, grueling type of climax in another of The Tiki King’s stories, “Geishas.” In that case, Tintocalis pits a sister and brother-in-law against each other, sexually, another tense scene that’s almost too much to bear. Hard to withstand, but wow, it sure makes for outstanding fiction.

One day, I hope to meet Stacy Tintocalis, even if it’s in hologram form (which is, I think, how online classes are taught, right?), to talk fiction, to get her to sign my book, and to make sure we in the English Department are not being catfished, that she’s really who she says she is. In the meantime, I hope she reads this, and that you, dear readers, track down The Tiki King. It’s full of great stories.

Stacy Tintocalis