A Map of Tulsa
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“If Catcher in the Rye has lost its raw clout for recent generations of Internet-suckled American youth, here is a coming-of-age novel to replace it.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)
The first days of summer: Jim Praley is home from college, ready to unlock Tulsa's secrets. He drives the highways. He forces himself to get out of his car and walk into a bar. He's invited to a party. And there he meets Adrienne Booker; Adrienne rules Tulsa, in her way. A high-school dropout with a penthouse apartment, she takes a curious interest in Jim. Through her eyes, he will rediscover his hometown: its wasted sprawl, the beauty of its late nights, and, at the city's center, the unsleeping light of its skyscrapers.
In the tradition of Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, A Map of Tulsa is elegiac, graceful, and as much a story about young love as it is a love letter to a classic American city.
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 decided I had to go to the bars.
In the city of my elementary school, and of my good blue- carpeted church, this was a step I had never taken. I knew where to go: across from the Mexican restaurant where my parents now ate after- church lunch there was a row of bars— in Tulsa's warehouse district. They didn't card here. I parked, I could hear my dashboard clock tick. And even as I watched, three teenage girls in peasant dresses filed out of the Blumont and lit their cigarettes. The sun was setting, the brick wall caught fire. The three girls stood there for some reason, as if in front of a firing squad, squinting in the sun.
At college maybe I became conceited about Tulsa, mentioning at just the right moments that I was raised Southern Baptist, had shot guns recreationally, had been a major Boy Scout— I may have agreed, when people smiled, and pretended that Tulsa was a minor classic, a Western, a bastion of Republican moonshine and a hotbed, equally, of a kind of honky-tonk bonhomie. Well, there was no bonhomie, that I had ever found: the silence of the suburban front yards washed up right to the roots of the skyscrapers, in Tulsa. In fact I had never seen so many people from my hometown actually talking to each other, and shrieking, as here in this bar.
Uninitiated, having experimented only at the drinks tables of upperclassman parties, I didn't know how to order. "Vodka," I just said.
The bartender was careful not to look at me as he set it down.
Situated at my little table, flipping my sketchpad open, I did my pencil in curlicues. On the barstools behind me I had an older man, I imagined him with a comb in his pocket, teasing a pair of women (the shrieking). And a lizard- voiced youth who from the pool table across the room was trying to carry on a conversation with the bartender.
"I need a million dollars," the older gentleman was saying. "That's all." And the women shrieked.
I kept my head down. The bar filled up. Dropping a napkin over my sketchpad I rose to get another drink. But sat back down, slowly. I'd seen someone I knew. She sat slumped, looking enviably at home at the Blumont. She had gone to high school with me. She sat listening to another, smaller girl. While she listened she wore a flat, patient expression, her mouth fl at, her eyeballs fl at and somewhat skeptical. Her name was going to come to me but I tried to stop it. I wasn't prepared to make friends with this person today. And yet I remembered all about her: who her friends had been, the stairwell where they ate lunch . . .
Edith Altman. Once I remembered her name I stood automatically. "Are you Edith Altman?"
"I was always with Tom Price," I volunteered, "and Jason Brewster and Ronnie Tisdale." Perversely, I was naming the most unpopular friends I could think of. "Or Rob Pomeroy."
"Rob Pomeroy, the unabomber?"
I smiled, a little stung. "Yeah," I said, "totally. Though I seem to recall that Rob always made fun of the way I dressed."
She sort of laughed. Her friend stared.
When I walked into the Blumont the number of people in Tulsa I was eager to hang out with had been zero. To me Tulsa was a handful of coevals from church; a troop of boys from Boy Scouts; and of course four hundred people from Franklin High School. My "group" of high school friends was worthless: an unpopularity klatch, a rump group— we had clung together to survive, but never took any pleasure in each other.
Edith leaned way back, as if something had occurred to her. "You were Emma's boyfriend."
Emma had been the valedictorian.
I think I had been a little famous for the puppy-dog way I followed Emma around, in the last spring of high school. I had no idea where she was this summer, I was happy to tell Edith— probably some internship.
Now I stood managing to look a little bored, with one foot kicked behind me, pretending to balance like a ballerina in front of Edith and her friend.
" Sorry— this is my friend Cam." Edith began to explain who I was. "So Jim was a mystery in high school. Emma started dating him and that was the last we ever saw of her. Nobody knew who Jim was. He refused to hang out with other people."
I was going to turn and go—I was not going to be patronized—while Edith carried on and this girl Cam just sat there patting her bangs. I would leave them alone. I could say that I said hello.
But Edith asked to see my sketchpad. "You should get us some shots," she suggested.
"Read the poems," I called back from the bar, "the drawings are just like, you know, realism! I could take lessons or something!"
When I ordered not simply another vodka, but three "shots," the bartender smiled. He had seen me making friends. Back at the table, Edith was taking my poems seriously: "These are actually good," she said.
Awkwardly, we didn't do the shots right away. We started talking poets—until, I think, I got too sweeping about whom I did and didn't like, and it was suggested we all take a walk.
"The BOK Tower is so beautiful" is the first thing I said outside. It had gotten dark, and the skyscrapers floated on the other side of the tracks like magnificent holograms.
Cam, I now learned, was not from Tulsa. She had come home with Edith from college. "Isn't Tulsa weird?" I asked her. "On that side of the tracks, we build up all the skyscrapers, but immediately on this side of the tracks it's nothing but a warehouse district."
"Cam's from Hartford."
"Hartford must be awesome," I said.
Cam pointed across the tracks. "So is that where the cool kids hang out?" Under the shadows, opening out between the skyscrapers, lay a half- dim square, dominated by a huge, clanking flagpole. Moths were visible in the security lights, and we could hear what sounded like skateboards, rolling in the dark. The Center of the Universe, I believed it was called. For its Guinness Records powers of echo. But I had never felt I had permission to show up there.
"Do you guys want to go across?" I asked.
"We were actually thinking we should go dancing."
So we were too old for the Center of the Universe— I assimilated this information painlessly.
Edith— who was trying to entice Cam as much as me— explained that it was Retro Night at the Cain's Ballroom. "It's from Prohibition," she told Cam. "Like the oldest club in Tulsa."
I lifted up one finger. "Can we make a pit stop at the Blumont first?"
"Well, we can get drinks at the Cain's," Edith said. I saw her smile to herself.
“Fearless, serious, and impressive. . . . Masterly. . . . Captivating. . . . Lytal asks the essential questions: how to be good; how to be an adult; how to live outside one’s head; how to love unselfishly; how to understand if this girl, this town—any of it, anything at all—are indispensable, and if they’re meaningful enough to turn into art. . . . Girl, town, youth and book are literary devices, as Jim—and Lytal—make clear. But the experience of love and place is not. In the tension between these truths, A Map of Tulsa finds its central insights and strengths. The girl may never have been ours to have. The town may be just a random place we’re from. Youth may be no more than a dream of possibility. But the book: the book is real. And the book, after all, is what we came for.”
—Gary Sernovitz, The New York Times Book Review
“Mr. Lytal, a Tulsa native, gets the push and pull of home just right.”
—The New York Times
"This lyrical slow burn of a book is . . . a meditation on place, destiny, and fate."
—The New Yorker
“Tender and engaging. . . . . A memorable coming-of-age tale about hometown ambivalence and finding a place in the world. . . . The tension between the cosmopolitan and provincial, the sensuous and the chaste, is a big reason why A Map of Tulsa is so memorable. . . . [Lytal’s] 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.”
—Hector Tobar, The Los Angeles Times
“Jim and Adrienne’s relationship begins with some mild drug use and frottage before lurching into a creepily detailed ménage a trois, at which point the novel begins to shake and rumble like a small, unexpectedly powerful volcano. . . . A Map of Tulsa deserves comparison with the very best novels of its kind, from James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime to Scott Spencer’s Endless Love. It’s also one of the most insightful books about the comforts (and traps) of small-city parochialism I’ve ever read.”
—Tom Bissell, Harper’s
"A Map of Tulsa is superbly evocative of Jim and Adrienne's discoveries of sex, love and jealousy. Mr. Lytal's exhilarating writing is reminiscent of winsome, confessional bildungsromans like Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) or John Cotter's Under the Small Lights (2010)."
—Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
“Fantastic. . . . A Great Gatsby of the plains.”
—Julia Holmes, Men’s Journal
“Ambitious. . . . Witty. . . . Wise. . . . A joyous elegy to the great, passed-over cities of middle America. . . . Like Bret Easton Ellis’s Clay from Less Than Zero, another kid on break from college, Jim has the freedom to remake himself. . . . And with good old Jim as our eyes and ears, we experience the ecstasy of that first, 20-something romance.”
—The Boston Globe
"[An] elegantly crafted debut novel."
"Like Goodbye, Columbus, the novel doesn’t pretend that the relationship is anything other than doomed. . . . There’s a fatalism to this tightly constructed novel that makes it a page-turner. Recommended for all who have known the tyrannies of relationships and place."
—Dan Duray, The New York Observer
“When he made his publishing debut a decade ago with a short story in McSweeney’s that held its own in the issue with the likes of Denis Johnson and David Means, Benjamin Lytal aimed to make Tulsa, Oklahoma, ‘look like a mournful spaceship.’ That spectral, wasted picture of the city (‘I loved the largeness of Tulsa, its big, summery fragrance, the asphalt, the puff of chemical air-conditioning’) looms over his first novel, in which Jim Praley, home from college, renews an obsession with Tulsa and Adrienne Booker, the girl who never left. Jim and Adrienne race through backyards at dawn and drive the sprawling freeways looking for inspiration for her paintings. As his fixation on Adrienne supersedes his own writing, Jim wanders further, impressionable and lost, an expatriate in his own hometown; Adrienne, in her own way, becomes as tragic a figure as Gatsby’s Daisy.”
“From its start, A Map of Tulsa pulses with the vitality of youth. . . . The Cain's, the Center of the Universe—it's all unmistakably Tulsa.”
“Lytal commands a shadows-on-the-cave-wall symbolism reminiscent of Donald Antrim, and never before has the city of Tulsa been given such resonant characterization.”
—The Daily Beast
“Lytal explores some wonderful, genuine topics in this novel: first love, first home, and how these experiences shape us — even when we reject them.”
—The Cedar Rapids Gazette
“If Catcher in the Rye has lost its raw clout for recent generations of Internet-suckled American youth, here is a coming-of-age novel to replace it. . . . The strength of this debut novel is Lytal’s evocation of place: Tulsa through Jim’s eyes is tenderly revealed. There is magic here if the reader has experienced any such provincial city, for the prose provokes remembered images, acutely vivid.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“[A] soulful debut. . . . 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. . . . 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.”
“Beautifully written. . . . Lytal’s first novel is dense with the maplike details of a specific place, the city of Tulsa, and also of the intricate geography of two young hearts. . . . Jim is an aspiring poet, and Lytal brings the same sensibility to his novel, making it, in the final analysis, a memorable reading experience.”
“A Map of Tulsa is a remarkable novel. Benjamin Lytal has written a glorious and exquisitely crafted work of art, one that poignantly brings to life all the joy and heartbreak of youth with compassion, grace, and wisdom.”
—Dinaw Mengestu, author of How to Read the Air and The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears
“Benjamin Lytal understands, and brilliantly captures, how the most aching significance can be wrought from a place, a time, a girl, solely because they were yours. One wouldn’t imagine Saul Bellow and Jarvis Cocker as complementary influences, but that’s the mad genius of A Map of Tulsa, an exhilarating debut unabashedly besotted by home and cheekily, preemptively nostalgic for a youth not yet lost.”
—Mark Binelli, author of Detroit City is the Place to Be and Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die!
“Benjamin Lytal illumines a city and the lovers who rev through it in A Map of Tulsa, a wise, moving, beautifully made novel about artistic ambitions in youth. The descriptive prose is a marvel and the characters complex—touching and troublesome and unforgettable.”
—Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends
"A hypnotic, near-mythic evocation of a summer in a city and its devastating aftermath. Sentence by sentence, one of the best first novels I've read."
—Karan Mahajan, author of Family Planning
“Each sentence a virtuoso sleight of language, Benjamin Lytal's A Map of Tulsa hands us nothing less than an unexpected new blueprint of the American soul. Allowing for chambers previously near unexplored in contemporary fiction, it traces the curious corridors of desire between the heartland and the coast, loving and climbing, homesickness and ambition, artists and intellectuals, the loyal and the free. This is fiction of the greatest power and most enduring interest.”
—Ida Hattemer-Higgins, author of The History of History
“The plot involves a penthouse in a skyscraper, an oil fortune, a motorcycle accident, dancing in bars, taking pills, and having sex outside. But mostly it’s about walking around the city — your hometown, reconquered — and wondering what your destiny will be.”
—Christian Lorentzen, The Millions
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