Benjamin Lytal’s A Map of Tulsa is in many ways the kind of typical first novel that creative writing courses have largely eliminated: in it a gauche young man, Jim Praley, falls in love with a seemingly unattainable young woman, Adrienne Booker, whom he momentarily seems to attain. Adrienne ticks all the boxes for such devoted affection: she has rejected the conventional pathway of college taken up by Jim to stay at home in Tulsa and paint – something she can afford to do because of her wealthy family, which she is, of course, alienated from. The novel also charts Jim’s relationship with his hometown for which he feels an inexplicable longing even while recognising a lack of belonging.
When Jim returns from college he gets casually invited to a party for Adrienne’s birthday – the kind of party you feel he would not have got near when at school there. His attraction to Adrienne is instant but we see her quickly take command of the relationship:
“She took my arm. ‘Can I take him?’
Edith shooed me away, as if eager to get rid of me.
Adrienne steered me out into the hall. I felt mom-escorted, stiff-armed, institutionalized by these ladies.”
In the early hours of that morning they make love, with Adrienne again talking the initiative. Lytal suggests that Jim’s innocence leaves him disconnected from Adrienne:
“The sounds Adrienne was making seemed connected up to a story I hadn’t followed. I couldn’t tell if she was faking it or not.”
Although Jim says “he did not assume it was a repeatable experience,” he pursues her and she eventually agrees to see him again. We can see he is already forming his own idea of her in his head, regarding her decision to drop out of school as “Out the box. Ruthless…you’ve actually done something with your time.” Later in the novel he says, “It was aspirational when I first dated her.” He agrees to come to her apartment each morning to teach her about the history of art, the irony being that he sees her as the teacher. As Lytal explained in an interview:
“He doesn’t exactly worship her, but he takes her very seriously as a kind of sensei who can teach him self-discipline, art, personal dignity.”
When they are in her studio Jim watches her paint or sleeps:
“Only when she wanted a break did she turn to me, and then not to chat or heaven forbid touch or kiss, but to go through the art books.”
Eventually she tells him she wants to go back to painting alone, seemingly ending the relationship – only to revive it again when she asks him (via a third party) to come on a weekend away with her and a group of friends. Only after that do they become lovers and spend the summer together, but the signs have been there since the beginning that what Jim regards as permanent, Adrienne sees as transitory.
While then novel’s first part details the events of that summer, its second moves forward five years to examine whether Jim’s feelings have changed, both for Adrienne and for Tulsa. It would be unfair to say too much about this as clearly events have moved on. This structure works well: part one unfolds much as expected; part two allows Lytal to add a further dimension to his exploration of the relationship. (If I was honest I would say part one seems heavily autobiographical, part two doesn’t)
Superficially, Adrienne seems to be using Jim – switching him on and off as she pleases, making him as much an audience as a boyfriend. However, in retrospect, Jim gains more from Adrienne than she does from him, as he realises towards the end:
“I never really opened up to Adrienne. I never confessed. I worshipped her but I sacrificed nothing.”
What initially seems Adrienne’s indifference to Jim comes to look more like Jim’s abandonment of Adrienne. He often talks about her giving him a ‘map of Tulsa’, that is showing and taking him places he would otherwise never have seen; in fact what she was mapping was his idea of himself.
A Map of Tulsa is a readable if traditional first novel, rejecting current trends in more experimental writing for a different kind of honesty. If it has a fault it is that Lytal seems a little in love with Adrienne himself.