A stranger comes to town in Benjamin Lytal’s debut novel, “A Map of Tulsa.” Only that stranger, the protagonist Jim Praley, is himself — the person who used to live in town, back home for the summer, and adrift.
With one year’s elite schooling under his belt, Jim the wannabe poet and amateur Delacroix, Goya, and Chardin connoisseur returns to Tulsa “magnificently hollow.” His assignment? “To prove that it was empty. And in hopes that it was not.” He wants to reexamine his old city through a new, proto-Bohemian lens. He wants to taste the antics of a new crowd. “I didn’t like people who I ‘knew,’ ” he grumbles. No summer job or apparent responsibilities, the sophomore stumbles from party to party, thirsty for experience that can shape him, asking himself, “Are you supposed to sleep with everyone you meet?”
Then he meets Adrienne, a high school dropout-trust fund artist whose “arc of her teenage life had already crested.” Troubled, parentless, and supported by a family oil fortune, Adrienne is a different species, maybe even different phylum. After their first drunken, Ecstasy-laden hookup, Jim concludes, “I did not assume it was a repeatable experience.” But it is repeated.
Thus launches their quirky romance into orbit. They make love. They go for drives, he says, “without purpose, to practice our instincts.” They shack up in Adrienne’s nest: the penthouse of a Tulsa skyscraper, “in a kind of elysium, or afterlife. In a cloud.” Soon, Jim had “lost control of the summer.”
At first glance, Jim seems the sort of privileged dolt about whom you could not care less. Like Bret Easton Ellis’s Clay from “Less Than Zero,” another kid on break from college, Jim has the freedom to remake himself from his “family of teachers, women and men who had stayed inside the loops of their own educations and flourished.” He is sincere, with a heart as big as a golden retriever’s, yet deluded and clueless. At one juncture, he describes himself as “Jim the Boy Scout . . . [b]asing his identity on people who do not know him. Good Jim, trying to do CPR on a dummy. I guess that’s Jim’s comfort zone.”
So you might dismiss “A Map of Tulsa” as a shallow chronicle of a white-collar, white person’s problems, and Lytal merely as a clever stylist. But over time, Jim’s journey of self-actualization gains traction. The book is riven in two: the before, recounting Jim and Adrienne’s fall for each other, and the aftermath, when some years have passed, and a tragedy of “General Hospital” proportions enters the plot to steer Jim home a second time. (Thankfully, Lytal handles the hospital scenes sans soap opera sentiment.)
Lytal himself has that enviable pedigree of a first-time novelist: Harvard educated; Wall Street Journal and McSweeney’s published; New Yorker magazine and Pratt Institute employed. And, like his first-person narrator, Lytal is also a Tulsa native who tried out New York before heading westward (in his case, making it only as far back as Chicago). We don’t know the reasons for the author’s real-life return to his home country, but you can read “A Map of Tulsa” as a joyous elegy to the great, passed-over cities of middle America. Lytal manages to make Tulsa’s humdrum cityscape seem newly observed, even a place that might enchant. “The complexity of a cityscape was supposed to intoxicate you, I knew, was supposed to exhilarate you with intimations of unseen connections and conspiracies,” Jim muses from the penthouse. “The city map was supposed to be like a powerfully overcomplicated circuit board: illegible, but richly suggestive.”
“A Map of Tulsa” is a small but ambitious novel of stumbling, coming-of-adulthood love. It is witty without eliciting a single chuckle. It is wise without being preachy. And with good old Jim as our eyes and ears, we experience the ecstasy of that first, 20-something romance, where as Jim says, “I had tried to love her by learning the way she lived.” And how, in that love’s passing, it still burns and faintly kindles, and the old flame transforms into, “by definition, a memory improperly possessed.”Ethan Gilsdorf, author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks,” can be reached at www.ethangilsdorf.com.