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On rich terrain in Oklahoma

April 07, 2013|Hector Tobar
  • The cover of "A Map of Tulsa" and author Benjamin Lytal.
The cover of "A Map of Tulsa" and author Benjamin Lytal. (Penguin; Annie Bourneuf…)

A Map of Tulsa

A Novel

Benjamin Lytal

Penguin: 272 pp., $15 paper


Jim Praley is a young man entering that stage of adulthood when life-defining romances unfold. It's the summer after his first year of college back east, and his romantic yearnings have brought him to a most unlikely place -- the center of Tulsa.

The biggest city in Oklahoma is both a hometown and the center of the known universe to Jim, the protagonist of Benjamin Lytal's tender and engaging debut novel, "A Map of Tulsa." Jim's deep ambivalence about his hometown is already plain to see during the first hours he's back home.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, April 07, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Local Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
"A Map of Tulsa": A review of Benjamin Lytal's novel "A Map of Tulsa" in today's Arts & Books section refers to Tulsa as the biggest city in Oklahoma. Oklahoma City is the state's largest. Tulsa is its second-largest. The error was discovered after the section went to press.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, April 14, 2013 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
"A Map of Tulsa": An April 7 review of Benjamin Lytal's novel "A Map of Tulsa" referred to Tulsa as the biggest city in Oklahoma. Oklahoma City is the state's largest. Tulsa is its second-largest.

"I came back to Tulsa ... for different reasons," Jim says. "To prove that it was empty. And in hopes that it was not."

Jim is a poet. He wants to be a great one, but he's from Tulsa, and he's never associated that oil town with great art. There is nothing sublime about Tulsa's humble skyline, its big-box stores, its thoroughfares that lead into the Great Plains. Or so it seems.

Soon, however, Jim meets a Tulsa original. Adrienne Booker is a member of a subspecies he didn't know existed before: she is an Oklahoma aristocrat, a wealthy high school dropout who lives in the penthouse of a downtown tower built by her family. She's deep in oil money.

Adrienne creates art and she sees beauty in the Tulsa landscape. She becomes Jim's guide to the city's enchantments. Jim falls for her hard. But eventually he falls even harder for Tulsa.

Jim comes to adore "the largeness of Tulsa, its big, summer fragrance, the asphalt, the puff of chemical air-conditioning that came when the Target doors slid open," Lytal writes. "And from the livestock barns, a lift of animal freshness."

"A Map of Tulsa" is in many ways a conventional coming-of-age story. As the novel opens, Jim is just old enough to wander away from home and get drunk, but he still feels the need to answer to his parents, who are schoolteachers. They respond to his artsy new Tulsa friends by saying things like "you have to be safe" and "you don't know these people, Jim."

This being the center of the Bible belt, Jim defends his new bohemian friends with a quote from scripture: "I know them by their works," he says, referring to their art. Jim was raised to believe premarital sex ruined people, but with his new lover and her friends, there are no boundaries.

Jim is a character imbued with pioneer ambition and Midwestern earnestness. He wants to embrace the world, but he doesn't want to lose himself either. The tension between the cosmopolitan and provincial, the sensuous and the chaste, is a big reason why "A Map of Tulsa" is so memorable.

Like its protagonist, Lytal is a native of Tulsa who studied in the East and later slogged away in the salt mines of the New York literary world. His great achievement in "A Map of Tulsa" is to bring his hometown to life as a place where all sorts of American ghosts can be found living amid the seemingly generic landscape of a midsized, middle-American city.

Most of Tulsa's enchantments are to be found within the confines of its "inner dispersal loop." Here, Tulsa's early 20th century elite built their homes, complete with Arcadian backyards. At a party with Adrienne, Jim wanders into a basement where he discovers the head of a bear, velvet-lined strongboxes, an English saddle and a series of light bulbs whose strings he pulls one at a time.

"It was endless, like an antique storehouse, with paths narrowly uncurled between banks of shrouded furniture," Lytal writes.

But the literal summit of Jim's Tulsa wanderings is the Art Deco tower where Adrienne lives in a penthouse. They can walk a few blocks around Adrienne's building and feel they're in Manhattan, though it's an illusion.

"But for a block, I at least could imagine that we had been born in a bigger city," Lytal writes.

Adrienne's family is broken, and she lives alone in her penthouse, painting. It's here that Jim shows her what's she's missed out on by staying in Tulsa. He brings her art history books and teaches her what he's learned about European painting.

As an artist, Adrienne has passion and a solid work ethic, but she's cut off from the world's art traditions. She performs in a rock band too, but the local music press is filled with "boosterism," and no band ever gets a negative review. Can any artist grow in such an environment?, Jim asks.

Neither Jim nor Adrienne can complete themselves in Tulsa. Halfway through "A Map of Tulsa" they hear the siren song of America's opposite coasts.

When Jim returns to Tulsa in the second half of "A Map of Tulsa" -- after many years and many low-paying but prestigious New York jobs -- he's wiser, more self-assured and a bit jaded. A tragedy has unfolded, putting Jim and all his Tulsa friends in a reflective mood. In these pages, Lytal moves Jim credibly into adulthood, but his novel loses much of its momentum as he does so.

In the end, however, Lytal brings Jim's story back to a meaningful and moving place. Not surprisingly, that rich emotional terrain is to be found in the heart of an underappreciated American city named Tulsa.


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