‘I came back to Tulsa that summer for different reasons. To prove that it was empty. And in hopes that it was not.’
For Jim Praley, college freshman and aspiring poet, his hometown is a kitschy accessory; an aspect of his past that he can patronise or romanticise for effect in the cultural circles he has begun to move in. Tulsa may not quite be a foreign country, but it is sufficiently strange to imbue him with a degree of exoticism, if handled correctly, ‘mentioning at just the right moments that I was raised Southern Baptist, had shot guns recreationally, had been a major Boy Scout’. Although he has only been away for a year, the city has already taken on a fixed impression in his mind, becoming ‘a minor classic, a Western, a bastion of Republican moonshine and a hotbed, equally, of a kind of honky-tonk bonhomie’. Over the course of his debut novel, Benjamin Lytal will examine the way we build up these mental maps of our past, and how radically they can differ from the territory they describe, in a classic American narrative of self-determination and loss.
A summer in Tulsa is a second choice for Praley:
‘my first plan had been to stay at college… I had applied to work on the summer staff of the college newspaper. However, I did not get on. And no other plan or internship materialised’.
Returning home, he initially falls into the old traps, mumbling clichés about downtown being ‘dead’, and chatting to school acquaintances. There’s a hint of Nick Carraway to his character; a lack of spark, a willingness to drift through life. Of course, any Carraway needs a Gatsby to fixate on, and Praley finds his in the shape of Adrienne Booker, the scion of an old oil family turned trust-funded artist. The pair meet at a party, where they take ecstasy and run through their neighbours’ gardens, jumping fences, before having sex on the ground as the sun rises.
Adrienne is old money, practically royalty in Tulsa. Her penthouse apartment overlooks the city, perched above the financial empire of Booker Petroleum. Jim admires her ‘aristocratic’ bearing, and the ‘grandeur’ of the apartment they share for the summer, but is also drawn to her unbounded nature. Growing up ‘pretty unsupervised’ she is capable of behaving outrageously (walking naked through downtown, chopping her hair off while singing in a bar), but always remains in control. In her studio, she maintains her focus for hours on end, working on her paintings in silence. To Jim, she represents the best of both worlds, able to embody his ideal of bohemianism because she is supported by her family’s name (and money). Together, they exist literally above the grubby world of commerce, able to concentrate on the finer things.
Jim’s developing conception of Tulsa becomes intimately linked to his image of Adrienne; it is from her penthouse window that he looks down on the ‘powerfully overcomplicated circuit board’ of the city and feels he understands it for the first time. For many characters, Jim and Adrienne’s family among them, Tulsa has been a place to escape, to romanticise from a distance. Adrienne stayed though, somehow finding the city sufficient in itself, happy to play the big fish in the small pond. Her existence proves to Jim that exotic creatures can thrive even in such unpromising environments – more, maybe her surroundings and background lend her an added degree of ‘authenticity’. Even when he leaves, at the end of that idealised summer, to return to college and then the literary world of New York, Jim is anchored by thoughts of Tulsa, comforted by the knowledge that Adrienne was still there, a vibrant assertion of individuality in this most unglamorous of States.
Five years later, Jim returns to Tulsa, compelled to come back by news that Adrienne has been injured in a motorcycle accident. He entertains ideas of sweeping into town as a homecoming hero, reuniting with Adrienne, maybe even quitting his job and making a life there. It is at that stage that the gap between Jim’s conception of Tulsa and the reality becomes apparent. Rather than coming to a true understanding of the city, he has simply swapped one set of illusions for another. When he returns, he finds that Adrienne’s clique has changed, she is now surrounded by a younger crowd who don’t remember him from his last spell in town. Missing their cultural reference points, Jim struggles to find common ground with this new group, hovering on the margins of their discussions. Instead, he finds himself gravitating towards Adrienne’s parents, a subtle generational shift that he struggles to adapt to.
The reader comes to realise that Jim Praley is not so much an unreliable narrator as a hopelessly gauche one. The idea of privilege is useful here; as a middle-class, educated white man, he struggles to see the world through anyone else’s eyes, constantly imposing his own views on the landscape he surveys. In fact, he turns out to be wrong about almost everything. He thinks that Adrienne is inseparable from Tulsa (instead, shortly after he leaves, she heads to LA); he assumes that Tulsa’s downtown is dead, before being repeatedly shown that it isn’t; he believes he is special in some way for going to College out of state, before learning that many of his classmates did the same. He expresses frustration when his surroundings fail to conform to his worldview: ‘none of the people… seemed to be aware that they were in a movie about social entropy, and missed connections, and loneliness’.
The question of production is very important in Lytal’s narrative. Tulsa is located in the old American heartland, and its oil industry was the basis of the nation’s industrial development, but the city’s economic power waned as the US began to rely more heavily on imported energy. There is discussion of alternative energy sources in the region, a plan to create a series of heat wells across the north of the state, but it is unclear whether this will come to fruition. If it does, it will require the family to cede control of at least part of the company to outsiders, and lay off staff. This malaise is also apparent on an individual level. Although Adrienne is held up by Jim to be an exemplar of artistic endeavour, very little of her work ever sees the light of public display. Around her, Jim finds his own creativity waning (‘my writing went neglected’), and the other man in her life, Chase, moves away to work as a film producer. Eventually even Adrienne will flee the creative sterility of Tulsa, heading West like a true American adventurer. From the cultural hub of New York, Jim can romanticise the spirit of Tulsa, but Lytal undercuts this view; his compatriots who remain there end up with broken backs and bone diseases, fail to live up to their potential. Jim expects the ambiance of their summer together to somehow have permeated the city, but his experiences with Adrienne’s new clique reveal the ephemeral nature of those moments.
Fitzgerald stated that there were no second acts in American lives, that individuals were tied to their pasts; Lytal’s characters struggle against this notion, but are ultimately sucked back in. As Gatsby learned, the reality of our lives rarely lives up to our expectations. All we can do is keep moving, leave the past behind us, not be lured by the siren call of adolescent summer affairs. The danger of going over old ground is exemplified by Adrienne’s accident. Returning to Tulsa after an absence, she leaves a party on her motorcycle. Driving on autopilot, following her own mental map of the city, she fails to notice a change in the layout of the road, and comes off the bike. Adrienne is already the end of her family tree. By failing to recognise the modern patterns of the city, by her Gatsby-esque fixation on the past, she brings the downfall of her old family even closer.
A Map of Tulsa is a complex novel, elegiac in tone whilst still managing to criticise the nostalgia of its protagonist. Lytal addresses economic themes, the decline of America’s traditional industry and the impact on the areas which it had supported, and the relationship between the country’s Eastern states and its centre – most of all though, he is adept at exploring the gap between his characters’ perception and the reality of their situations. For Jim, the reality of adulthood can never live up to the future he had imagined when growing up (‘those years when we were apart… were the sweetest. Because they had the most potential’), but when he and Adrienne travel back, attempting to recapture that sense of possibility, they are punished.
Locating a traditional narrative in a modern setting, Lytal’s writing is both fresh and familiar, whilst Adrienne is a memorable subject, her intrigue growing as the narrator’s credibility recedes. There’s a hint of Springsteen in this story of small town aspiration and adventure, and something admirably blue collar about his style, straightforward and brisk when compared to the current American vogue for labyrinthine prose influenced by Pynchon and DFW. A confident and assured debut, A Map of Tulsa isn’t the Great American Novel, but Lytal certainly aspires to great American writing.