Jim Praley is not quite sure what to make of Tulsa, the city where he grew up, and went to high school; the city he was a little too eager to leave behind when he finally left for college. At the start of Benjamin Lytal's soulful debut, A Map of Tulsa, Jim has finished his first year of college and is back home in Tulsa for the summer. Already the prodigal son act is one marked with defeat Jim only returns home because he didn't get a summer job with the campus newspaper. Never mind, he tells himself, he will set a systematic course of study over the summer, one that will leave him amply prepared to choose a major, come sophomore year. "I came back to Tulsa that summer for different reasons. To prove that it was empty. And in hopes that it was not," Jim says.
As he finds out over the course of that intense summer, "empty" Tulsa is not. It still isn't the dynamic city that he wants it to be, but it has a character all its own, made sweeter by the fact that he falls in love with the enigmatic Adrienne Booker, a high school dropout who is a vital part of the city's emerging art scene. The scion of a wealthy family, people who made their fortune in oil, she lives in a glamorous penthouse at the top of the Booker Towers downtown and Jim is instantly drawn into her world. As part of a mutual agreement, he teaches Adrienne the basics of art history while she, in turn, works religiously at her art every day. In what plays out as a somewhat one-sided relationship, Jim falls madly in love, and even comes close to taking off a year from college just so he can spend time with Adrienne. At the end of that summer however, Jim realizes the relationship has run out of gas. He returns to college, graduates and eventually moves to New York where he works for a pittance at a literary magazine.
Five years later, a jarring incident forces Jim to return. His parents have since left Tulsa but he returns for Adrienne's sake. Part two of the novel centers on Jim retracing his memories with Adrienne and finally coming to terms with his complex feelings about both her and Tulsa.
First love is always glorious, Lytal shows us, and age and distance can lend it a sheen of rosy nostalgia. "An ex-girlfriend, my definition, is a memory improperly possessed," Jim points out. The son of public school teachers, Jim realizes his friendship with Adrienne was aspirational. He was captivated by the fact that someone could live like that, and have "a liberated sense of what to do with money." It is interesting that Jim later realizes that he was probably envious of Adrienne almost as much as he was in love with her. Adrienne, for one thing, is never plagued by the love-hate relationship with Tulsa that others seem to be defined by. "The ingrained culture war, the knee-jerk resentment that most kids have for the conservative town, didn't seem to worry her," Jim remembers. How wonderful it would be to float above it all, to live life on your own terms, and most important to have a clearly defined sense of exactly what those terms are.
The city of Tulsa, built on oil, has been undergoing a reinvention of its own in real life. It now enjoys a thriving art scene and is transitioning into a vibrant, cosmopolitan city. It is not difficult to see parallels between the city's arc and Adrienne's both born into oil and trying to carve a future that doesn't derive so heavily from that particular history.
If this were merely the tale of first love, Benjamin Lytal's novel would already stand head and shoulders over other books in the same genre. His story is moving without being melodramatic, and you can sense Jim's longing and wistfulness in every beautifully crafted sentence. What really makes A Map of Tulsa stand out, though, is the denouement, not loaded with histrionics, but a gradual one where Jim comes to terms with the fact that Adrienne might have her faults after all. Love is giddy, this story reminds us, and if it eventually fades away, it can leave a strong sense of disillusionment and longing that lingers.
Lytal, who has worked at The New Yorker, writes with a quiet assurance. His descriptions are not fussy but absolutely spot on. Here, for example, is his description of a middle-aged mover in Tulsa: "Albert was the type of man who in middle age finds comfort in the young and is happy to live with their bluster and their self-pity, the kind of man who feels fulfilled reaching his finger out, from time to time, to correct them."
A Map of Tulsa charts the contours of Jim Praley's own complex and beautiful coming-of-age journey. Benjamin Lytal has written an utterly haunting book that is as much an ode to a city as it is to first love. As his novel shows us, it is hard to distill and separate a sense of time or place from love especially first love. They are all interconnected, together forming the essential arteries of one universal map.
This review is from the April 17, 2013 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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