“Zahlah quit the bed and saw her dark reflection in the full-length mirror. An American woman. That’s what she saw. Liberated and humiliated.”
In her debut story collection, The Tiki King, Stacey Tintocalis has crafted a book whose quirks beautifully dovetail with its deep, dark undertones. Tintocalis’s characters and neighborhoods, ostensibly shiny, are disguised by veneers that are beginning to peel and crack after years of stress and strain. With ten stories that run the gamut from the emotional musings of a man watching a female stranger iron his shirt (“Iron”), to the existential plumbing of an abandoned woman adrift in lust for her husband’s brother (“Geishas”), The Tiki King is as varied as it is pleasurable
At its best, Tintocalis’s prose is crisp and fluid, each sentence seemingly jumping off the back of the last and creating a cascade of paragraphs down through these declining relationships and environments. Such is the case with the title story—a meandering tale told through the eyes of a charming eleven-year-old boy who, simply through his narration, allows a reader to peer into the inner sanctum of his parents’ lost “Apple Pie America.” Their fantasy of permanence and happiness is as naïve as it is fickle; these wounded adults cling to it for psychic survival, but the dream has no resonance for our sardonic, pre-pubescent narrator:
I know what it [Apple Pie America] means but can’t bring myself to respond. All I want to say is “I know all about Apple Pie America, dad. I know it’s Joe DiMaggio and Superman comics and backyard barbecues and the American flag on the moon. In other words, it’s a lot of stuff I don’t really care about.
Each of Tintocalis’s stories, in their own way, is informed by this twinge of nostalgia, though it is never twee, clichéd, or overly rose colored. Instead, the desires that afflict her characters function as weights they wish to cast off so the characters might, like Old Alexander Valinchuk of “Another Kind of Sleep,” live in the present more fully, with whatever remnants of themselves they’ve managed to hold onto. For Tintocalis perfection, even happiness, is a myth, and the ideal is ostensibly a statue which gleams of gold from afar but, up close, proves to be made of tin. This is true for Zahlah, a Lebanese immigrant living with her sexually repressed husband in Southern California. Zahlah wants to be reveling in the glitz and glam of her environment, but instead becomes more trapped than she ever would have been in Beirut. After yet another botched attempt at lovemaking, this time with Zahlah playing the part of lusty seductress,
Zahlah quit the bed and saw her dark reflection in the full length mirror, her body hard and ugly, her nipples righteously erect. An American woman. That’s what she saw. Liberated and humiliated. She grabbed a dirty robe from the hamper and left the room to sleep by the empty pool.
The moment, like many in The Tiki King, shows the character’s need for release without offering any easy solutions beyond a grin-and-bear-it approach and another go-round in the cycle of unhappiness.
The Tiki King is not without its slower, less emotive moments. The opening story, “Too Bad about Howie,” feels meandering and immature in contrast to the stories that follow. Its denouement, based upon a rather coy reveal, misdirects the trajectory of a collection that otherwise continually impresses with its pith and urgency. All in all, The Tiki King is an eclectic, ambitious effort, united by its fundamental theme—that life is the quirk, the laugh, the strange moment that vanishes before we can fully register it, but of whose memory we are never really free.