On the shelf
Thrillville, USA: Stories
By Taylor Koekkoek
Simon & Schuster: 208 pages, $17
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I had just crossed the border from Washington to Oregon when it started to snow.
Renting a car in Seattle and driving to interview Taylor Koekkoek, the author of the stunning debut short story collection “Thrillville, United States”, seemed like a good idea in sunny southern California.
But by the time I got to Portland, the snowstorm was approaching blizzard conditions, swirling around the towering pines and blanketing the highway. The map on my iPhone lit up with traffic accidents. My mini-SUV shuddered like a Chihuahua as the trucks roared through the storm. A safe driver would stop and cancel the interview; a reckless one would go ahead.
It’s the sort of dilemma the characters in Koekkoek’s stories often face, in which a bad decision leads to a flood of regret: using opiates while working at a roadside fair, letting a complete stranger parked a borrowed van, taking a group of drivers to -training for a night of drinks on the eve of a big test.
In his publicity commentary for the book, legendary short story writer Wells Tower praises Koekkoek’s “painful tales of calamity and rebellion,” a situation I now found related.
It was these stories that pushed me to find Koekkoek himself. A Google search reveals very little about the writer: a few published stories, no social media trail, author bios at a handful of colleges featuring the same photo of a friendly-looking young white man in a Hawaiian shirt. If one were to invent an identity for a fictional writer, the results would resemble something like the sum total of Koekkoek’s online experience.
His posts, however, are legitimate. The Los Angeles ReviewPlowshares, the paris review. How was it that, in this age of relentless self-promotion and branding, someone who wrote stories of such uncommon verve went almost completely unnoticed?
I finally arrived at the Koekkoek address several hours late. His name (pronounced Cook-cook) is Dutch, he explained to me after welcoming me to the house he recently bought with his wife, the writer Joselyn Takacs, but he has no idea what it means.
Although he lives a mile from his childhood home, Koekkoek took a rebellious path to become a published writer. After taking a single creative writing course at the University of Oregon in Eugene, he was torn between earning a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and becoming a lawyer.
To his surprise, he was accepted into the highly competitive MFA program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “I decided to go where the real money is,” Koekkoek joked. He admitted that he would have made a lousy lawyer. “I would have hated it.”
At Hopkins, he studied under writer Eric Puchner, who was impressed with Koekkoek’s mindset. “(He) was willing to go back and keep checking and checking and checking,” Puchner said by phone. “Students… who have become writers and publish books are not necessarily the most talented; they are simply the most stubborn and are able to fortify themselves against rejection.”
Koekkoek’s writing steadily improved during his time at Hopkins, Puchner said, imbuing stories with his own experiences in Oregon. “I watched his work go from being hilariously satirical to something that could really move someone. It was kind of a dramatic transformation.”
Koekkoek was a bit more restrained about his development: “I think a lot of us have that stage where you’ve read too much Hemingway.”
Later, he moved to Bend, Oregon, where he lived with his twin brother. “I didn’t have a real address,” she recalled. “I was hanging around. I was making questionable decisions.” It was during this period that Koekkoek wrote the collection’s title story, “Thrillville, USA,” which is based on a real amusement park in the town of Turner, Oregon. closed in 2008.
“It had a lot of roller coasters and spinning things,” Koekkoek recalled. “We loved it because he felt dangerous.”
For as long as he could remember, there had been rumors of kids flying off roller coasters and dying in Thrill-Ville, but he couldn’t find any evidence of deaths. He became obsessed with reports of accidents at Disneyland and other major amusement parks. “Nobody ever dies at Disneyland, which doesn’t mean people don’t die there,” she explained, or alleged. “It just means that they are not declared dead until they have removed their body from the grounds.”
The story is a compendium of the horrors of amusement parks overseen by drugged-out carnies: “Last season, a hell-bent drunk managed to launch himself off a magic carpet slide and then plummeted a story and a half onto a concrete walkway. . We didn’t think that was possible, but then the guy flew over without his shirt on. He broke her pelvis clean. He ruined his pants on impact, instantly.”
While Takacs was earning her Ph.D. in creative writing at USC, Koekkoek was visiting her. This resulted in the Los Angeles story “Dirtnap,” which anyone who has felt defeated by the city’s byzantine parking regulations will appreciate. As he struggles to park the van of his girlfriend’s roommate, the protagonist accepts the help of a passerby, who promptly drives off with the vehicle. The narrator makes the situation worse by lying about it, turning a clever plot element into an emotionally tense moment and a study in startling consequences.
Koekkoek flirted with academia while living for a time in New Orleans and Virginia. But back in Portland, he has no plans to return to teaching. His path to publication was equally eventful. While attending the Bread Loaf Writers Conference as a bartender intern, a program that was discontinued in 2019, he attracted the attention of agent Henry Dunow, who eventually took him on as a client.
After they developed the collection together and came out with it, Simon & Schuster editor Sean Manning was enchanted by its stories of young people finding themselves in troubles whose solution may be obvious to the reader but not to the protagonists.
“The general malaise facing this collection typifies contemporary America in the 2020s,” Manning said by phone, “but no matter how grotesque or violent the situation these characters find themselves in, ultimately there is a goodness that each of them seems to possess. .”
It’s true that Koekkoek’s stories are like a microcosm of our era: old ways of understanding the world are mercilessly dismantled, challenging the characters to find new approaches to their problems, except none of that happens online. Was Manning wary of Koekkoek’s lack of commitment to social media?
“I thought that was really refreshing,” Manning said. “The disparity between what one would expect a young writer to be (super online and too self-promoting) and someone who just doesn’t seem to be that into that sort of thing.”
After completing the interview, Koekkoek checked the weather reports on his phone. Snow was piling up on his porch, burying my rent.
“I have a guest room,” Koekkoek said ominously, “but if you want to go back to Seattle tonight, your window of opportunity is shrinking.”
I said goodbye, brushed the snow off my mini-SUV, and turned on the defroster. I shot out of the bowl at the end of the street, passing cars that were slipping or stuck. For a while I followed a fool on an electric scooter and felt like a character from one of Koekkoek’s stories. When I finally reached the relative safety of the highway, I thought of the ending of his story “The Flight Instructor,” in which the narrator trudges through a snowstorm:
“The snow was almost knee-deep, and the top layer of ice made it hell to walk through, breaking through again and again with every step. I felt it in my hip flexors and faintly in consciousness, because like everyone else, I’m always sad to ruin fresh snow.”
Ruland’s new novel, “Make It Stop,” will be published next month by Rare Bird Lit.