Being from the worst state in America (Connecticut), I’ve always struggled to understand the way that a New Yorker is supposed to relate to his or her geographic background. Some people seem to feel embarrassed about their home states the way I do, but others seem to have nice memories. You watch a college basketball game with these sorts of people (they’re often from the Midwest) in a bar and wonder what it must be like not to have to apologize every time someone asks you where you’re from. You also have to wonder if there isn’t a different kind of pride involved, the kind associated with having gotten out.
In his debut novel, A Map of Tulsa, former New Yorker editorial assistant Benjamin Lytal examines the origin question through a love affair. Jim Praley reconnects with Adrienne Booker, an idiosyncratic local heiress he knew from high school, at a Tulsa party after his first year at college, and from there, it’s a summerlong three-way between the couple and their city.
What most recommends this book is its execution. Its first half takes place during the relationship, its second five years later. With such a dynamic, you might assume the tone of the first part to be tender, the second elegiac, but it’s the other way around. The the first part of the novel portrays Jim and Adrienne as aloof toward each other, even though the relationship is clearly significant for both. Jim moves into her penthouse downtown, and joins her in her artist’s studio and at her parties in the Tulsa art scene, such as it is, and she doesn’t always act like she knows he’s there. He tries to get her to clean up by hiding bottles of her favorite whiskey around the apartment, and she agrees to date him after he buys her a gun. “So she’s your adventure,” an older guy tells Jim. “You’ll go back up there and tell the other guys about this crazy girl you hooked up with.”
“Maybe the thing Adrienne and I had really had in common was our selfishness,” Jim writes near the end of the book’s first half. Like Goodbye, Columbus, the novel doesn’t pretend that the relationship is anything other than doomed. Who knows, really, how close they were? How affected it all was?
Only in the second half of the book does the distance begin to close. Jim remembers long walks on drugs, and the time Adrienne made him wander around downtown at night, naked, while she videotaped it as a performance piece. It’s as if he’d been taking it for granted that you knew those stories. He fills in the gaps where he can, though not completely. Sometimes the revelations are made in the negative. “For long periods of time,” Jim writes after he’s moved to New York, “I probably didn’t even think about her.” Probably? Why should he be thinking about her at all, let alone constantly? And why does he seem to feel guilty when he doesn’t?
Call it the Center of the Universe effect. That minor Tulsa landmark appears several times in the book, though only in passing. People walk by it without noting what it is. In real-life Tulsa, it’s a nondescript architectural plaza downtown, a circle where you can hear your words echoed and amplified if you stand in the center. No one outside the circle can hear the effect. Jim sees Tulsa and Adrienne as a Center of the Universe in his biography, and the book is his personal examination of the hold they have over him.
What’s there to say of Tulsa? It’s a place to forget. Jim loses contact with old friends, and doesn’t want to take Adrienne to the Target he used to visit as a child. It’s a place to assert independence. Jim and Adrienne’s first date is at a gay bar near the airport, clearly a worse gay bar than one would find in New York. She seems to be telling him, look, we may fit into this town about as well as a homosexual person does, but like these people, I’m not going to leave. I shouldn’t have to. In the second half of the book, she crashes her motorcycle because she forgot that a friend’s driveway had recently been redone, that there was now a curve. She breaks her back because she trusted the Tulsa in her head. Mr. Lytal, a former book reviewer, doesn’t assume we won’t notice the metaphor, and has Jim analyze this himself. Before Adrienne dies from her injuries, the story of her accident actually “moves” him.
Briefly, he makes plans to relocate to Tulsa. He’s aware of how it will appear to the people in New York, and to the reader: “There goes Jim … Turning his back on New York. Too good for New York. Pretending that he has some kind of ancestral homeland in the city blocks and front yards of Tulsa.” It’s not that, he insists, and it isn’t. It’s much worse. It’s fetishism. He wants to work for the Booker family, whom he meets at the hospital, even though they are haughty and, wealthy from petroleum, at least a little bit evil.
This dream of Tulsa is not about loyalty. While Adrienne is in her hospital, a much older friend of Jim’s is in another, receiving an “obscure bone treatment.” Wheedled into visiting the townie friend, Jim tells him that in Germany, people are still friends with the people with whom they went to elementary school:
“But in America, it’s like we’re always supposed to disappear—if we reach, you know, a certain level of success. Like Elijah … All our major social institutions growing up are about building intense friendships over a limited period of time and then severing them. High school, and then college. And summer camp. Poof.”
It’s better to go, and toxic, actually, to stay. But everybody’s from somewhere and everybody falls in love at some point, so how to fix these anxieties? 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.
A Map of Tulsa
Penguin Books, 272 pp., $15 , March 26