Drawing “A map of Tulsa”: Benjamin Lytal’s first novel does that and much more

amapoftulsalytalOklahoma is one of the almost mythical Mid-Western states of the Union, running down through the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas above, and only Texas below.  The very word ‘OOOOklahoma’ starts music ringing in your ears; but Tulsa?  Hands up anyone who’s been there!  But reading Benjamin Lytal’s debut novel, A Map of Tulsa, [London: And Other Stories, 2014] you could begin to feel it might be worth the detour.

This is a book about young love ending in sorrow; and love of one’s hometown that can exercise a lifetime’s magnetic attraction as time and distance grow.  It’s a book that brings home how large and how different are each region and state.  The short back cover blurb says: A novel in two parts, A Map of Tulsa is love story and elegy, a meditation on mobility and its consequences, a book about the distances inside America.  But like the famous river of Heraclitus, you can never enter the same Tulsa twice: the mistake Jim Praley, the narrator, tries to make.  Since the author has lived in Berlin, I think we could safely label this book a Bildungsroman.  

Nineteen-year old Jim, reading English at college, is back home at his teacher parents’ house for the summer vacation.  

I remember the heat the day I came home, I leaned my forehead against my parents’ picture window and the heat came through the glass.  Tulsa.  For a few days I drove, sailing south on 169 and coming back, sweeping across on the Broken Arrow, retracing old lines, bearing down with new force.  My parents were very kind.  But I had decided to go to bars.

And in those bars he meets with old high school friends and finishes up at someone’s birthday party in a wealthy neighbourhood.  It’s not the birthday girl’s house but it’s where the party is.  Jim meets Adrienne.  She’s different; not just beautiful but a free spirit who has dropped out of high school to paint and to sing in rock bands.  They pop a pill and duck out of the party and, like a couple of wild teenagers, run across the gardens of several houses to reach a park where, being healthy young heterosexuals, they ‘make out’.  That’s how that summer begins and there is more ‘making out’ to come.  

Adrienne Booker is a poor little rich girl, living in her long absent father’s penthouse on top of the Booker Oil building.  Booker Oil is the family business which is run, apparently very well, by her aunt Lydie.  It is not long before Jim moves in to the penthouse and, every morning, walks (yes! walks, which in itself is not common practice round there) with her to her studio.  He finds he can spend the day just looking at her pondering where to place her next brushstroke while he tries rather ineffectually to write.  They can spend whole nights walking around Tulsa.  Seems all very matter-of-fact but what lifts this story out of the ordinary is quite simply the quality of Lytal’s writing.  For example, when Jim buys Adrienne a gun for her birthday, and they both fire at the glass bricks that make up the windows of her studio.

The rest of the story is too private to make sense: Nothing happened.  Adrienne got back to work.  I lay down.  Soon the only thing out of the ordinary was the wind that trickled in through the chinks that we’d made.  Neither of us remarked on it.  Neither of us felt that we should break the silence.  As I was drifting off – I was abashed enough to feel a kind of pressure on my eyes, like sleepiness – I formed the improbable concern that this air from the window was going to affect her paint, dry it or sort of blow it sideways on the canvas.

It had become my habit, at the studio, to lie still for a while after naps, with the unaired taste of my own saliva in my mouth.  I did some of my longest thinking that way.  It was how I had dreamed up the gun thing.  I had had second thoughts, but ultimately had decided not to go back on something that had been so gleamingly intuitive.

Only now (back on the couch, after the smoke had cleared) did the intuition shine forth again, dumb and blue.  I saw it for what it was: not love, but jealousy.  Over that short courtship I had grown envious of this person, Adrienne, and, impatient to be like her, I had attempted this stunt.

As the long, hot summer progresses towards the Fall, Jim wonders about not going back to college and simply living an anarchic life with Adrienne but, and it is the first of Jim’s several buts, as the fever pitch of romance cools off, he does go back, and, over time, they communicate less and less.  He graduates and moves to New York while his parents retire to Galveston, Texas, meaning there is no automatic reason for returning to Tulsa.  He still thinks of Adrienne.  He sometimes thinks he sees her among his fellow-commuters.  And that’s when he gets the alarming news that, on an impulse, takes him back to Tulsa.  Never mind what the news is – this blog doesn’t do spoilers – but it gives Jim the chance to consider returning to his roots, coming back (home?) to Tulsa permanently, to have a change of career.  Part II of the book takes place over a much shorter time span than Part I and as the events unroll in those few days he has to makeBenjamin Lytal another decision.  The spread of time and the quality of the writing over the pages in the second part of the novel allows this reviewer to make a prediction about the author.  If he goes on writing like this, I think we have the next ‘Richard Ford’ coming along.  His observation and description of detail; his accurate rendering of speech patterns and his ability to put thought processes down on paper with the thought and the analysis of that thought running in parallel are all impressive.  I rate this at 8.5 out of 10 and I will be looking out for more from Benjamin Lytal.

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